Potential Wi-Fi issue averted
A safety feature of the Blue Light emergency pole system on campus alerted the University administration late this summer that a pole near Massell Quad was not functioning. Upon further investigation, it was clear that other technology in the area was not working correctly either.
“The wires were starting to fail,” Vice President for Operations Jim Gray said in an interview with the Justice.
On Aug. 24, Gray and Jim La Creta, the chief information officer, sent a joint email to the University community explaining that “an unexpected failure in the wiring of an underground phone, data and internet cable near the walkway between Hassenfeld Conference Center, Fellows Garden and Shapiro Campus Center” would interfere with “landline phone and data, as well as wireless and hardwired internet operations.”
Hassenfeld Conference Center, the Rose Art Museum, the Pollack Fine Arts Teaching Center, the Faculty Club, the Chapels, and Massell and Rosenthal Quads were all at risk of losing connectivity, according to the email.
“At the beginning of this, I was worried that we might have had a big chunk of campus without wireless for a couple of days,” Gray said.
Fortunately, few of these areas were affected, and those affected only lost service for short periods of time, but the wiring issue threatened to have a massive impact on the first week of instruction.
Explaining the cause of the wiring failure, Gray said that the University’s buildings are “served by a web of different sorts of lines that provide utilities of various sorts to the buildings.” Steam lines, for example, provide the steam that heats Brandeis buildings, electricity lines provide power, and technology lines provide services such as landline phone and wireless internet connectivity.
The failure was caused by a steam line near the Louis Brandeis statue that runs close to IT cabling. That line “overheated,” according to Gray, which “caused the conduit that held the voice and data wires to melt. ... The melting started to impact the functionality of the wires in that conduit.”
Workers involved in the repairs are still unsure of what caused the steam line to overheat, but Gray said they think it was either a leak in the line or “the insulation that surrounds the steam lines to keep the heat inside degrading over time.”
After discovering the problem, the University warned the University community via email of the potential impact this wiring issue — and efforts to fix it — would have on campus phone and data services.
“It was obviously fragile and failing,” Gray said of the wiring itself, adding that they thought it was possible “just … digging on the site might cause a loss of connectivity.”
Resolving the issue involved two stages: rerouting data lines so connectivity could continue during excavation, and digging into the ground itself to excavate the site and analyze how to repair both the steam and technology lines.
The rerouting occurred Aug. 23-24, when the University ran new technology cables through existing underground channels, according to Gray. This ensured that potentially affected buildings would be served by different cables before the excavation uprooted the melted lines.
An Aug. 27 update published on BrandeisNOW reported that fencing was in place near the Louis Brandeis statue hill and that digging had begun. The excavated area falls between two manholes — one between the SCC and the Louis Brandeis statue hill and the other on the path between the hill, Sherman Dining Hall, and Rosenthal Quad.
The excavation is concerned not only with the technology cables, but with fixing the steam pipes, which “might involve taking them out and putting new steam pipes in” between the two manholes, Gray said.
As of Aug. 31, Gray expected it would take “at least several weeks” to complete the excavation, and longer if pipes need to be replaced. This estimate contradicts the Aug. 24 email, which stated repair work would “continue for 2-6 days.”
Although “excavation and repair work will continue … no further service disruptions are expected,” according to an Aug. 31 BrandeisNOW Update.
Gray said there was “almost no interruption of voice and data service” during the rerouting and initial excavation, when large losses of connectivity were most likely to occur. The Rose and Pollack had a “little outage,” and other places may have had “sporadic service” at times, according to Gray, but service was mostly uninterrupted, and residential spaces did not experience any major loss of connectivity.
“Fortunately, the Internet has worked perfectly fine in Massell,” Shapiro Hall CA Liat Shapiro said.
Community Advisors and Orientation Leaders were briefed on the situation on Aug. 23 by Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Tim Touchette. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh boy, here we are about to welcome the largest class in Brandeis history with ‘Welcome to Brandeis! Your Internet will be available .... soon!’” Shapiro recounted in an email to the Justice.
While the potential severity of this data line issue is clear, Gray does not think it likely that the Class of 2022, or future Brandeis students, will face a similar problem. He stressed the rarity of this confluence of events — namely, not only having a steam line near an IT line, but having a steam line overheat in that specific area — calling it “an outlier, a one-off kind of situation.”
It is uncommon, according to Gray, for steam and IT lines to be close together underground, and even if they are nearby, a leak in the steam line has to occur for there to be an issue. “The steam line and that cable existed happily together for decades before something happened,” Gray said to illustrate his point. “It was the leak, not the presence of the steam line.”
When asked if the University has plans to preemptively locate and change other areas where steam and IT lines run in close proximity, Gray said, “We would not make changes ahead of learning that we had some challenges. But if we learned we had proximity and a steam leak, we would probably try to proactively make a change.”
—Editor’s Note: Liat Shapiro is a News writer for the Justice.