A billion-dollar FAIL? Backhoes and drills damage 100k+ telecom cables every year

If you suddenly find yourself without an Internet connection, there’s a good chance that somewhere a team of construction workers just uttered a collective “uh-oh” because their backhoe dug up a telecom cable. Oops.
It turns out that this problem is so common that it is costing millions upon millions of dollars in repairs every year. Backhoes, drilling and digging are serious cable killers.

A small example to start: Sweden

In Sweden, admittedly quite a small country, around 8,000 telecom cables are cut off by backhoes every year. In fact, a construction crew managed to do this very thing not far from the Pingdom office a few months ago.
The repair costs alone for these accidents are roughly $30 or so million per year in Sweden (an estimate from a recent Computer Sweden article).
If we have that many incidents in a small country like Sweden, how common are they in a big country like the United States? Let’s have a look.

The US billion-dollar fail

Finding recent exact data for the US proved to be tricky. A Wired article from 2006 gave us some numbers to start with. In 2004, there were 675,000 excavation incidents where cables and pipes of various kinds were damaged in the US (often referred to as “underground utility damages”).
More than a quarter of those, 27.5%, were telecom-related. That would mean 185,625 cases where US telecom cables were damaged in 2004.
If the cost of repairing a cable is similar in Sweden and the US, telecom cable repairs may have been around $700 million in 2004.
However, there are reports that things have improved. In 2007 there were an estimated 256,000 underground utility damages in the US, a lot less than in 2004. If a quarter of those were telecom-related, that leaves us with around 64,000 incidents where underground telecom cables were damaged.
Even after such a big improvement, the yearly repair costs still end up in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Over a longer period of time, say 5-10 years, the repair costs will count in the billions.

And what about worldwide?

We have just looked at Sweden and the US here. Now imagine the costs worldwide. Those will easily amount to several billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of telecom cable breaks due to our careless digging. Every year. And a ton of downtime for various networks, we suspect.

Preventive measures

In the US there is a project called One Call where both companies and individuals can call in to find out what cabling exists where they are planning to dig.
An interesting option has been explored in Denmark, where a central, nationwide website provides information about the underground cabling that exists in various areas. This website can be consulted by people and companies preparing an excavation. This has cut (no pun intended) the number of accidents by 70% which is a huge improvement. Sweden has just launched a similar initiative, so we’ll see if it works as well here.
Now we just hope that that the operator of that huge backhoe that recently drove by doesn’t get any funny ideas…
Further “outage reading”:



  1. I used to work for a telecom cable locating contractor. Most states in the US have laws requiring you to call a number (usually 811) at least 72 hours before you plan to dig. If you dig before the lines are located and you interrupt service, you will be held accountable for the repair bill and can be held accountable for other punitive damages. I witnessed first-hand a back hoe excavate a fiber optic line that cost the construction company more than $25K USD in repair fees and I presume a back hoe operator his job.

  2. FWIW, Sweden has most of its cables underground as opposed to the US where it seems like a large portion of them are in the air. That might make the comparison less useful.

  3. When my local ISP was installing their own fiber optic cable, they cut lines and interrupted Internet service two separate times in two days. Shortly thereafter, when they branched into my circle/neighborhood for home hook-up/installation, they cut my water pipes 20 yards off the road.

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