Business Columns & Blogs

I placed my Amazon order with one click. Here’s what happened next.

A car slammed into this CenturyLink equipment May 14 on Eagle Road, disrupting internet and landline-phone service to hundreds of customers
A car slammed into this CenturyLink equipment May 14 on Eagle Road, disrupting internet and landline-phone service to hundreds of customers Provided by CenturyLink

If had a “Frequent Users Club,” I’m sure I’d be in the “million one-click group.” I’ve got to be one of the company’s longest and most-frequent users. And for all of those times I’ve pushed the button and moved onto other tasks, I’ve never thought about how my click gets to and from Amazon in that split second. I recently found out, and I was astounded.

A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon with two Boise leaders at CenturyLink: Jim Schmit, vice president of operations for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming; and Paul Desaulniers, manager of region operations. They gave me a behind-the-scenes look at how they keep their internet customers happy and their equipment in working order.

As Schmit says, CenturyLink works to “improve lives by connecting customers to the power of the digital world.” And since we’re all so dependent on that world, anything that improves our speed and access to it is crucial.

How do they connect CenturyLink customers to Amazon and more?

Once a CenturyLink customer hits that “one-click” button, her computer routes the signal to a CenturyLink modem inside the house and then to a network interface attached to the house.

The signal then travels for miles through a network of either copper or fiber optics, which are buried or aerial. Along the way, the signal passes through several neighborhood access terminals and ultimately reaches a large box filled with remote electronics. At that point, the signal travels underground to the CenturyLink central office, where it is transferred to a fiber pipe connected to rest of the world. This process repeats millions of times each day in the 84 network central offices CenturyLink has throughout Idaho.

The main central office for Boise is Downtown, not far from the Capitol. Its rooms are filled with fiber and cables that do the tough work of moving information around. The rooms are quiet, dark and almost artistic, given the range of colors assigned to wires that go to different types of customers. When you think that each household or business has a dedicated line that needs to be monitored, kept running and sometimes repaired, it’s amazing that so many of our orders get to Amazon and back, usually without glitches.

Of course, once the signal gets to, the process reverses, going back to the home computer with confirmation of the order. All of this happens in a split second.

But what happens when something goes wrong? What if a connect boxes along a highway is damaged?

That’s when the company goes into high gear. On Mother’s Day this year, a driver slammed into one of the boxes on Eagle Road. The damage affected the copper and fiber optic cables that brought internet and phone service to hundreds of customers. Company technicians worked more than a week, 24 hours a day, to bring back service to those affected customers.

As Schmit and Desaulniers say, this happens often in the winter, when people slide off roads and hit their boxes. The outdoor repair work is tough, and it pulls technicians from their regular monitoring work to deal with a crisis. All so we can stream those movies and place those orders.

I’ll never be blasé about it again.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor in the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University.