Light Reading

AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion

Phil Harvey
News Analysis
Phil Harvey

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) says it is still investigating what caused one of its access equipment cabinets to explode and catch fire in a suburban Houston neighborhood nearly two weeks ago.

According to residents in the 8200 block of Clover Gardens Drive, the explosion shook one nearby house, damaged a fence and some siding, and destroyed several thousand dollars worth of telecom gear, including a DSLAM, installed as part of AT&T's Project Lightspeed.

"We're looking into all the possibilities for this fire, including a gas leak, electrical issue, or an act of vandalism," says AT&T spokesman Wes Warnock, in an email response to Light Reading. "Our investigation is ongoing."

While AT&T investigates, James Harrison, 79, says his property was damaged by the explosion and subsequent equipment fire. On his lot, a new section of fence stands where the old one was broken by flying debris. On the front of his house, next to the garage, the siding appears misaligned and one section near the roof has been twisted away from the house.

The cabinet farm outside Harrison's house was typical of AT&T's new access network deployments. (See Hunting Project Lightspeed.)

Closest to the street is a crossconnect box that was relatively unscathed by the DSLAM debris. Next to where the DSLAM used to be is a damaged pedestal, which supplied power to the DSLAM and the cabinet's cooling system.

IP DSLAM maker Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and lithium-metal polymer battery manufacturer Avestor, two companies whose gear is being widely deployed in AT&T's access network, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Canadian firm Avestor, honored as an AT&T outstanding supplier in June, filed for bankruptcy on October 31. In a statement on its Website the company says: "Considerable sums were invested in developing a battery that could be marketed profitably to the telecommunications industry; nevertheless, the enterprise was not able to reach the break-even point... Consequently, it is no longer able to continue operations."

Whatever the cause of the explosion, Harrison recounts that his wife, Mabel, who was home when the DSLAM cabinet was destroyed, said the blast was significant and debris went in at least two different directions. "It went about 50 feet to the other side of the yard and some pieces of the box went down the street," he says. "It shook the house pretty good."

Meanwhile, as Light Reading has reported earlier, fiber optic equipment cabinets have been going up in 13 states as AT&T nears the official launch date of its U-verse service outside its initial two markets, San Antonio and Houston. (See AT&T: We're Sticking With FTTN and AT&T Set to Expand Its U-verse.)

Within 24 hours of the DSLAM's demise, Harrison says an AT&T crew came and picked up the pieces, hauled off the debris, and wrapped the pitch where the equipment had been sited in orange protective netting. Since then, however, no one has been in touch with Harrison about the damage to his house and fence, or to say when the eyesore in his front yard will be cleaned up. "They're supposed to come back and tell us what happened, but nobody's come back," he told Light Reading on Sunday.

— Phil Harvey, News Editor, Light Reading, and Andrea Quezada, special to Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 4:17:33 PM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion

Story switches between network cabinet and transformer, so it's not clear what burned down.


straight shooter
straight shooter,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:35:39 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion
I can just see the ransom note now...

"...and we'll continue to blow up one DSLAM a day until you let the merger with BellSouth go through."
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:35:38 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion

All 'Mabels' should get to the hardware store quick and buy some protective padding...
Michael Harris
Michael Harris,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:35:38 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion
Wouldn't put that past their lobbying team.

Talk about "exploding demand" for IPTV! ;) Seriously, it is fortunate no one was hurt from this.

One has to wonder if this could impact the deployment rate for Lightspeed. Homeowners, and the local municipal officials who are dependent on their votes, tend not to appreciate self-detonating telecom devices installed in residential communities. It would not be surprising to see a public outcry to stop new installations until safety can be ensured by AT&T. NIMFY! (not in my front yard)....
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:35:37 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion
But seriously my dear Watson, it's hard to imagine that a DSLAM, no matter how powerful, could simply explode!
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:35:34 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion
In addition to the reasons AT&T mentioned in its comment, the battery technology being used is supposedly capable of a big bang. But I haven't figured out what could set it off.

User Rank: Light Sabre
12/5/2012 | 3:35:33 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion
I generally don't like to speculate about failures like this. I'm sure that somebody is doing a proper analysis.

But to answer your question about what could have set it off... a fairly large battery with high energy density contains a lot of energy at full charge. You put a short across the terminals, it releases a lot of energy across the short, and a lot across its internal resistance. Most of that gets converted to heat. Add to that any electro-chemical reaction that generates explosive byproducts, and you have a big bang.

So all it would take would be a good short somewhere in the DSLAM or in the battery.
Pete Baldwin
Pete Baldwin,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:35:32 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion
I once visited Exponent (formerly Failure Associates), who look into this sort of thing. I think they would confirm that a short could blow the battery.

They told me about explosions happening with laptop batteries .... the moral being, if you're carrying a spare, fully charged battery around, make sure it doesn't come in contact with, say, the spiral binding of a notebook.
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:35:30 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion

Generally, Lead Acid batteries are used in cabinets. They produce an explosive gas when in operation. If it is not vented properly, any spark can set this off.

Same thing can happen with your car battery with outgassing.

User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 3:35:29 AM
re: AT&T Investigates DSLAM Explosion
Very true. That's one of the reasons that when you hook up jumper cables you are supposed to do them in a certain order (although the primary reason is that you are also preventing damage to the electrical system). But you are supposed to hook the last cable to the ground instead of the battery, don't smoke around them, and so forth, all to prevent sparks igniting the sulfuric acid gas.
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