Company planning to partner with other carriers for permanent solution

H-1 viaduct fire forces major changes

Published  5:46 PM HST May 02, 2013
HONOLULU -

Hawaiian Telcom has seen its share of challenges since it formed in 1883.  But now, it has a 21st century issue that's forcing the company to consider some costly changes.

Fiber optic cable are out of sight but running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

When a fire broke out in an unsuspecting place cutting off service, companies statewide knew something had to be done.

It was the nightmare engineer Daniel Matsutomi did not see coming.

"Basically all the fiber cables in here melted.  You don't even see it at all.  All you see in the outer sheath," said Matsutomi.

Police believe a homeless man started a fire in January on the underbelly of the H-1 Freeway viaduct that crippled miles of fiber optic cable and cut service for tens of thousands of customers, including military and emergency personnel.

It was second day on the job for Hawaiian Telcom COO Scott Barber and the early morning fire happened when staff is typically low.

"That single outage actually affected a number of carriers," said Barber.

Four months later, the remnants remain and the replacement cables are up, but still exposed.

PHOTOS: Fire under H-1 viaduct
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A fire was reported underneath the H-1 Freeway airport viaduct near North Nimitz Highway and  Kakoi Street Tuesday morning.  You can see the smoke coming from the red portion of the picture.

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Hawaiian Telcom is partnering with other cable companies to possibly split the cost of a permanent solution.

The Department of Transportation has already tried fencing in the area, but says the homeless keep ripping it down.

"Biggest challenge?  Cost.  Time," said Matsutomi.

Matsutomi says rerouting cables 30-feet-high on a different part of the viaduct was discussed then discarded.

They considered cementing in the area.  It's common practice on the mainland.  But, engineers say the viaduct simply wasn't built to handle the extra weight.

Another option -- burying the cable.  It's the safest but most expensive option.

But, even that can be problematic.

"The famous backhoe comes in and digs up our cable," said Matsutomi.

Cars can be an enemy, too, crashing into poles and cutting off service.

Mother Nature, says Matsutomi, takes the cake. Case in point -- Hurricane Iniki.

"Cables everywhere, people cutting cables to clear their driveways," said Matsutomi.

Right now, engineers are assessing all of Hawaiian Telcom's cables to make sure each one can handle an emergency.

"One side gets cut, the other side can actually handle the traffic," said Barber.

Changes that have kept the company running.

Barber says weathering more than 100 years in business proves this is a problem they can fix.

"We're up for the challenge and, we think, in the end, we can improve that whole situation as a result of the fire," said Barber.

"So far, so good.  Keep your fingers crossed," said Matsutomi.

The company hopes to meet with other carriers by sometime in June. 

Hawaiian Telcom still considers moving the cables away from the viaduct as its top choice. 

A spokesperson for the company said they have no estimate yet on how much the project might cost and whether the cost might carry over to consumers.

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