Phone service restored to North Coast

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The AT&T fiber optic line that was cut Thursday, disrupting telephone, cellphone, Internet and television service in five North Coast counties, is believed to have been sliced by vandals in search of copper, Mendocino County sheriff’s and AT&T officials said Friday.

Telephone service was disrupted for about 16 hours after the line was cut at about 10:45 a.m. Thursday, the Sheriff’s Office said. It was restored at about 3 a.m. Friday.

AT&T is offering up to a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the suspected attempted copper theft, spokesman Steven Ramirez said late Friday. Tampering with phone networks is a violation of federal and state laws, he noted.

“This is a serious matter that affects public safety and the community at large,” Ramirez said.

The outages primarily hit Mendocino and Humboldt counties, but also affected portions of Sonoma, Lake and Del Norte counties, AT&T officials said. The number of people affected was not available Friday, Ramirez said.

One or more people cut an exposed fiber optic line running along railroad tracks between Hopland and Ukiah, investigators said.

“It looks like they were after the copper, which has some monetary value,” Ramirez said.

Area residents have offered alternate theories, from it being the product of a terrorist attack to youthful acts of vandalism.

Whether severing the cable was accidental or a purposeful assault on a communications system, it, along with other such incidents nationwide, demonstrates the communications system’s vulnerability and further raises concerns among emergency responders and legislators.

The cut section of cable was an easy target, albeit off the beaten path. It was located above ground following repairs to the optic line after a landslide in the area. It would have been readily spotted by someone walking along the train tracks, sheriff’s Capt. Greg Van Patten said.

“It was a temporary fix,” at that time, Van Patten said.

The cable, located near the railroad tracks between Burke Hill Road and Nelson Ranch Road, south of Ukiah, normally is buried about 2 feet deep, AT&T workers said Thursday.

The area where the vandalism occurred is along a fairly remote section of the out-of-use track, which tends to follow the Russian River through the valley between Hopland and Ukiah. There’s no public road to the area, but satellite imagery reveals signs that people frequent the stretch. Several patches of what appear to be marijuana gardens can be seen among the trees growing between the train tracks and the river, and numerous worn paths — perhaps from all-terrain-vehicles or foot and hoof traffic — crisscross the land.

The section of track also is located in an area where youths from a nearby subdivision are known to walk. Area farmers report that teens sometimes build bonfires and party along the river. They also are suspected of vandalizing nearby vineyard irrigation pumps.

AT&T removed a portion of the severed optic cable so investigators could study the damage and potentially determine what was used to slice the cable, Van Patten said.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office also is investigating the incident, he said. The FBI is aware of the situation, but officials said Friday they’ve not yet determined whether they will become involved. They are investigating almost a dozen incidents in which telecommunications equipment was damaged in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past year.

Carriers across the nation report thousands of cuts to cable lines each year, but most are believed to be accidental. FCC data indicate more than 100 cases of malicious activities affected telecommunications each year between 2010 and 2013, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Thursday’s incident in Mendocino County follows calls by area residents, emergency providers, Internet providers and legislators for redundant cable lines that can carry emergency communications when one cable fails or is cut.

Law enforcement and other emergency responders were able to reroute 911 calls and keep the system afloat Thursday, but there could have been people in need of help who had no way to phone 911. The outages affected standard phone lines, Internet-based phone lines and cellphones. One Ukiah-area woman reported her car’s OnStar program also was down.

Van Patten said he has not heard of any serious injuries resulting from the interruption.

AT&T asks that anyone with credible information about Thursday’s cable vandalism call AT&T Asset Protection at 800-807-4205. Callers may remain anonymous, officials said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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