MCI Communications Corp. had a gnawing feeling that something was amiss around 9:45 a.m. yesterday when phone service went down along the Eastern seaboard.
The company's state-of-the-art network control center signaled that a major cable was down near Woodford, Va., about 45 miles north of Richmond. A repair crew was dispatched to the scene and immediately confronted the apparent culprit: a large beaver.
The industrious rodent was standing near the scene of the crime, but it ran away when workmen moved in for a closer look. Frank Walter, an MCI spokesman, said the crew later reported that a "large rodent, probably a beaver" had gnawed through the cable.
The 2-inch cable had been buried under 4 feet of mud in a swampy area. Mr. Walter said repairmen later spotted a number of beavers in the area, but made no attempt to locate the suspect.
"We have not put out a search team," Mr. Walter deadpanned.
The beaver disrupted phone service to thousands of MCI customers along the Eastern seaboard, from the District of Columbia to Florida. Residential and business customers, including some federal government lines, were affected by the partial outage. Service, first disrupted at 9:45 a.m., was fully restored by 12:30 p.m., Mr. Walter said. The outage hit 133,000 circuits, affecting an estimated 1.5 million calls.
MCI reported the outage to the Federal Communications Commission, which keeps tabs on network failures.
Jim Spurlock, head of the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau, said yesterday's beaver incident marks the fourth time in a year that the persistent rodents across the country have had their way with fiber optic cabling. Last year, he said, AT&T was hit by pesky beavers not once, not twice, but three times, causing minor outages in each case.
"This is a bipartisan beaver that has no preference between MCI and AT&T," the FCC chief concluded, his tongue firmly in cheek.
Mr. Spurlock said fiber cuts occur for many reasons, some more bizarre than others. The phone companies go to great lengths to protect fiber optic lines -- cables are typically encased in several layers of plastic and metal, then buried several feet under the ground -- but some events just can't be anticipated, he said.
Like the time an Alabama farmer dug a grave to bury a dead cow and cut an AT&T cable. Likewise, a man with a high-powered rifle in Indiana accidentally shot out an underground cable conduit of AT&T's, causing a minor network failure.
Land isn't the only place where fiber cables are at risk. Undersea cables must be wrapped in special meshing to guard against sharks.
Mr. Spurlock, meanwhile, said the FCC will investigate MCI's beaver-cut just like it would any cable cut because "we take all these things seriously."
Still, compared with the software-related outages earlier this year, MCI's outage yesterday was "very minor," Mr. Spurlock said.
The previous outages, experienced by AT&T and several of the regional Bells, were caused by software-related glitches. Those outages led to widespread, sometimes critical, outages in the nation's communications links. Yesterday's outage, by contrast, was limited in duration and impact because calls were immediately rerouted to backup lines.
Even though cable cuts occur, Mr. Spurlock said fiber optic cable is still superior to traditional copper cabling as far as overall reliability is concerned. "Things have really gotten better because of fiber," mused Mr. Spurlock. "Unless, of course, you get a really busy, really determined beaver."