By John H. Johnson
It’s a nightmare in the tunnels beneath New York City’s streets! That is, if you’re a telephone line or cable trying to carry voice, internet, and TV service to people above.
What’s down there and what’s the big deal?
The New York City underground is where every last drop of water, to and from every home and business, travels. It’s where every watt of electricity, to every last light and outlet, is carried. It’s home to nearly every rodent searching for food. Many of these tunnels are flooded regularly with rainwater, snowmelt, or even the water of New York Harbor. The copper cables and electronic equipment really enjoy the occasional bath—NOT!
How do Verizon crews stay a step ahead of all the hazards to keep the phones ringing and the internet humming?
We asked Verizon’s Jay Beasley, whose technicians tackle the challenges daily. “First, you need great people,” Beasley said. “Fortunately, we’ve got ‘em and they’ve been hard at work providing even more customers with our Fios fiber-optic services. [While] enhancing our copper network with the latest fiber optics for better reliability and more capacity, we’re working to keep the older parts of the copper network in service until we can change those copper-based services to fiber-based services. It’s like changing your tires without stopping the car.” The work is both art and science, high tech and low tech. It takes both physical strength and surgical skill.
Phone service has historically been delivered over twisted pairs of copper wire. Some of that older copper is still providing service until it can be replaced. Each of the older strands is wrapped in paper insulation and bundled together. If water gets in, it turns the insulation to pulp and short-circuits the signals in every single cable pair. “So, we pump pressurized air into the cables to keep water from entering in the first place,” Beasley said. “We’re successful most of the time. But if a cable is cut during roadwork or construction, or we lose air pressure and water gets in, it’s a torturous process to dry out the cable and splice it back together.” In fact, just knowing which copper wires to connect often requires a technician to send a tone from one end to the other end. There, a second technician listens for the tone to confirm which wires to connect—a process that can take many hours.
“For years now we’ve been working to replace the copper network with fiber optics. We’ve completed much of Lower Manhattan in the years since the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy damaged many of our facilities.
“Our teams are out nearly every day replacing copper cables with fiber optics. And with the tight quarters of the West Village, that means that if Verizon comes knocking to…access…your building to install fiber, it could be to resolve a problem or deliver new service for your neighbors,” Beasley said.
Switching to fiber is not the only challenge. The telephone network runs on commercial power, and lots of it. So what happens when the lights go out?
Every Verizon switching office and virtually every wireless cell site has dedicated backup batteries that keep people connected when commercial power goes down. Every major facility also has a backup generator and an emergency fuel supply to keep the batteries charged to survive longer outages.
“When Hurricane Sandy hit, much of Lower Manhattan flooded, swamping some of our backup generators, [which] we’ve since moved to higher floors,” Beasley said. “We also reinforced our fuel storage tanks and fuel pumps. In one case, we actually built a watertight and airtight bathysphere around an underground fuel pump, complete with submarine-style doors to survive the next flood.”
“Keeping New Yorkers connected means we work our tails off every day to be prepared for the worst while hoping for the best.” Beasley said. “We build backup systems for our backup systems, but we have to remember [that] we’re living on a rock surrounded by water, rubbing elbows with millions of our closest friends. It’s a tough environment but we’ve got tough people doing the tough jobs. That lets us take the miracle of telecommunications for granted—most of the time!”
A miracle indeed, made possible by good planning, sustained investment, and great people working hard to keep the West Village connected!
John H. Johnson is the Verizon Corporate Communications Director, based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.