Burnin' Up the Wires

by Charles A. Gimon


On a nice summer evening, July 28th, 1995, most of Minnesota got disconnected from the rest of the Internet. And in spite of all the buzz we've heard about information warfare, hacker terrorists and the Internet "being able to survive a nuclear attack", it was bums under the bridge that did it.

Transients had broken into a USWest work area under the Washington Avenue bridge and set up housekeeping. One possible reconstruction of the events: one, a sleeping drunk. Two, a runaway cigarette. Three, a burning blanket. Four, fiber-optic cables toasted to a crisp. A Minnesota Daily article suggests that the fire may have been set on purpose, since the transients had been told to move out by University Police not an hour before.

The rest you know. No outgoing connections to anywhere else in the world. Domain name service slowed to a crawl, so even machines in the same room with each other had trouble connecting. For all practical purposes, Minnesota had fallen into a sinkhole.

The main Internet connection for Minnesota, jointly run by MRNet and the University of Minnesota, was a scorched, melted mess. Even worse, when USWest installed the cable in the first place, they installed the backup connection in the same place under the bridge. USWest has promised that they won't do it again. The guys USWest sent out to the scene had to work until Sunday morning to get everything fixed.

The outage hit everyone who gets their Internet connection to the outside world through MRNet, meaning most colleges, businesses and retail Internet providers. Orbis/BPSI and MinnNet get connectivity through Net99, so they weren't affected. Internet providers that are based in other areas and just have a local dial-up here, such as Primenet or Netcom, weren't bothered either, nor were America On-Line, Prodigy or Compuserve. Links inside Minnesota were working (if you could get domain name service), and discussion in the mn.general Usenet group went on, if nothing else. E-mail was stored on either side of the break until it was repaired--that's how the software works. MRNet issued peevish complaints that Minnesota wasn't really "disconnected from the Internet", because hey, who needs the Louvre when you can connect to St. Olaf?

The regular media jumped on the story, latter-day luddites cheered, local net mavens called for the death penalty for arson. It was probably the most attention the local workaday media had ever given to an Internet story. Most businesses lucked out, since the outage happened over a weekend. For the record, this writer went kayaking on Lake of the Isles--it was an awfully nice day that Saturday.

You can read about the whole hoohah again at:

Report from Bridget Kromhout at the U of M
mr.net's offical blurb
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