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Mystery of the 8-hour cellphone outage explained

ROCK FALLS – Mystery solved.

The great cellphone outage of August 2012 was caused by, drum roll please, someone in Rock Falls cutting more than the grass.

Around noon Monday, cellphone service throughout the Sauk Valley crashed when a fiber-optic line was severed by a lawn mower, a Windstream Corp. spokesman said Tuesday.

It affected a variety of carriers, including Verizon, U.S. Cellular and Sprint.

Windstream, of Little Rock, Ark., provides broadband, phone and digital TV services, primarily in rural areas, among other things. It owns the fiber-optic cable that was cut.

Scott Morris is a Windstream media contact. According to Morris, here's what happened, and why:

Cellphone calls are only wireless from the phone to the tower. After that, the signal travels on a landline system, entering a long-distance network and traveling to its local destination, either another cellphone or a landline, in this case through a fiber-optic cable. Many companies' signals may travel through the same fiber-optic cable.

Some fiber-optic cables are buried, some are aerial, or a combination of both. This particular cable was aerial, then came down a pole and into the ground. There was some slack in the cable at ground level, and the mower blades sliced through the slack.

That took out three cell towers immediately. The loss of the three towers caused a drop in the strength of the signal to six other towers.

Those served by the three towers lost all cellphone service. Others whose signals were weakened may have had intermittent service, could text but not call, or could call but not get the Internet on their phones. (Texting, for instance, uses less broadband than a phone call, so some texts could ride the weaker signal to their destination.)

Amplifying the strength of the signal to the six towers was the easiest fix; that took about 3 hours.

Repairing the severed cable took longer – in this case, 8 hours to get the first three towers up and running, Morris said.

All service was restored by about 8 p.m.

Fiber-optic lines can carry all kinds of signals, which is why when one is cut, you can lose ATM service, landline phone service, cable TV, the ability of gas pumps to read your credit card, the ability of Metra trains to talk to their stations, etc.

Lines get cut more often than people realize, and for a variety of reasons. Google "fiber-optic line cut," and more than 12 million results pop up.

Some of the more common reasons: someone with a backhoe forgets to call JULIE, or calls JULIE but miscalculates a line's position; a car or a bolt of lightning takes out a pole carrying a line; a semitrailer snags a low-hanging line; some yahoo with a gun uses a line for target practice; a mole gets the munchies.

Where the Rock Falls line was cut, and who cut it, Morris did not know. And it really doesn't matter in this case.

Windstream, like other such companies, monitors its system and knows when there's been an interruption, he said. Often, the cause is accidental, and so there are no penalties – repairs become part of the cost of doing business.

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