The Magic Switch: Tech in the Time of Pandemic

Jun 16, 2021

Tuesday, March 17, 2020, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issued a State of Public Health Disaster Emergency that required hundreds of thousands of Iowans to stay home and work remotely, switch to online education, and rely on telehealth and other digital services. Such sweeping changes would not have been possible– not even the broadcast itself — without round-the-clock work and dedication from a team of about 50 Fiberutilities Network Services (FNS) engineers, technicians, front-line managers, field techs, and others.

Under the direction of the Iowa Communications Network (ICN), FNS built the critical infrastructure that enabled the state to continue providing public safety and leadership, health, education,  National Guard, and 911 services throughout Iowa in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic.

FNS Connects Critical Agencies and Higher Ed

Every day, FNS field workers visit sites across Iowa to perform network preventative maintenance and repairs to the Iowa Communications Network (ICN). “We manage thousands of devices across a thousand different locations. Any given day, alarms go off, fans quit, and water drips. We need to make those repairs to prevent outages and keep Iowa connected and running,” says Rob Smith, President of Fiberutilities Network Services.

The spread of COVID-19 across the world in mid-February prompted FNS to strategize and plan with ICN. They looked at how the nature of their network use would soon drastically change as cities, towns, and rural areas would connect via tech like they’d never done before. Critical agencies and higher education would need unprecedented broadband capabilities and support.

“The mindset of this company is that we’ll be there, we’ll figure it out, we’ll make it work,” says Steve Knapp, President and Chief Financial Officer for FG, the parent company for FNS.

FNS manages the computers and network for the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC),  a  normally quiet and unoccupied space in the basement of a secure military facility in Johnston, Iowa. SEOC needed a quick tech expansion to address the COVID-19  crisis. Expanded video, data, and voice capacity would enable Governor Reynolds, the department heads of aII government agencies, and legislative and judicial branches to digitally communicate with a newly telecommuting statewide government workforce. FNS installed internet connections, increased bandwidth, added the web-based phone, installed cabling and switches, and set up a pool camera for all news agencies to connect to a single feed during press conferences.

As the health crisis worsened, the Iowa Department of Public Health Services (IDPHS) requested a COVID-19 emergency call center to meet health information needs of the city and county public health offices, hospitals, clinics, and an increasingly concerned public. Within 24 hours of being asked, FNS stood up a large call center run by health professionals. FNS pulled wires, turned out circuits,  extended capacity, and managed IP configurations for phones and computers in order to switch off devices when shifts change, without interfering with the IP configuration.

“At the epicenter of disaster response for the state, our team facilitated the additional capacity our education systems required as high schools, colleges, and universities began stressing the system,” says Knapp.  With 100,000 students, faculty, and staff leaving campus to work from home and using the network to access school servers, FNS rebalanced the network, changing bandwidth between carriers, consulting ICN engineers, and implementing changes.

Meeting Challenges with Internal Strength

During this disaster response, FNS managed its own switch to a remote workforce, implementing telecommunications with its employees and testing the network on a smaller scale before adding capacity more broadly. FNS field techs, however, continue going out into communities to perform day-to-day network repairs and maintenance.  This includes entering hospitals and clinics, filling out health histories, and having their temperatures taken before entering some facilities. Ifs stressful, frontline work and FNS leadership continually check-in to make sure individuals aren’t over-stressed by the demands of their roles.

The FNS network operations center, just 20 feet away from the SEOC, is monitoring operations from a switching data center that connects everything in the state. A rotating skeleton crew currently keeps watching in order to limit possible employee exposure and illness, which also ensures there will be people who can keep government services humming during the pandemic

“We’re all proud of the work we’re doing. We respond to the JCN’s requests within hours and we maintain a vital connection across the State of Iowa. FNS continues looking ahead, anticipating challenges, offering solutions, and preparing for the next level of disaster response.” Rob Smith, President, Fiberutilities Network Services

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