But one of the biggest causes of broadband outages remains the lowly squirrel. Squirrels have long enjoyed chewing through the sheathing surrounding fiber optic and power cables, often resulting in broadband and power outages in states from Vermont to Virginia. Squirrel-related outages are so common, some security researchers have argued the fuzzy mammals pose a greater threat to US power and broadband infrastructure than cyberattacks. The problem has gotten so bad in Kentucky, a state-led broadband project this week demanded an additional $110 million in funding, in part, to help address rampant squirrel damage to fiber lines deployed across the state.
"It seems Kentucky has an abundance of squirrels that like to chew through fiber," Mike Hayden, chief operating officer of the state authority supervising KentuckyWired, told state lawmakers at a budget meeting in Frankfort last Tuesday.
While Hayden said squirrel damage delayed fiber that was supposed to have been deployed last April, the Louisville Courier Journal notes state leaders voted down the group’s request for additional funding, saying they were hesitant to give more money to a project plagued with delays that was originally supposed to be completed at the end of 2018. KentuckyWired is a state-run, public/private “middle mile” broadband project intended to deploy roughly 3,000 miles of high-speed, high-capacity fiber optic cable to every county in Kentucky. The project is designed to deliver high speed broadband to state universities, government institutions, and local residents who’ve been left underserved by the private sector. Kentucky is the 27th most connected state in terms of broadband according to broadband tracking firm Broadbandnow. Like most states, giants like AT&T and Comcast enjoy regional geographic monopolies, resulting in limited competition, high prices, and slow speeds. Data shows community broadband often provides better, cheaper service than private ISPs.
But these alternatives are only as good as their business models, and even supporters of community broadband efforts like the Institute for Local Self Reliance say KentuckyWired was plagued with design and implementation problems from the start. As a result the project has seen repeated delays—many of which had nothing to do with furry rodents. The Kentucky Communications Network Authority, which oversees the KentuckyWired project, says that despite being denied additional funding they’ll use existing funds to deploy "armored fiber" in more wooded areas of the network to fend off hungry rodents.
It’s not entirely clear why squirrels find fiber optic casing so delicious. Many say the rodents are simply using the casing to keep their teeth sharp, though others wonder if there’s something in the plastic sheathing itself that squirrels find irresistibly delicious. Whatever the motivation, the damage to global power and telecom networks is significant. In a blog post by transit carrier Level3, the company stated that 17 percent of the damage done to its fiber network was caused by squirrels. “Honestly, I don't understand what the big attraction is or why they feel compelled to gnaw through cables,” company President Fred Lawler wrote at the time. “Our guys in the field have given this some thought and jokingly suspect the cable manufacturers of using peanut oil in the sheathing.”
In much the same way you’d protect a bird feeder, there’s numerous countermeasures that can be deployed to prevent squirrels from accessing aerial fiber runs. But these solutions require additional funding, something that’s not always easy in a US telecom sector rife with dysfunction, and already struggling to uniformly deploy quality broadband in the first place.