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One cut phone cord, lots and lots of trouble

Friday, June 30, 2000

By Frank Reeves, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

How could a severed Bell Atlantic fiber optic cable in Lancaster County disrupt service in Pittsburgh and from Maryland to New York?

Simple question.

Unfortunately for the millions of customers who encountered problems with their local or long-distance service Wednesday night and early yesterday morning, the answer is not so simple.

Sharon Shaffer, a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman, said yesterday the company still had not determined how many people lost service as a result of the cable cut.

Service was not fully restored until around 3:45 a.m. yesterday, about eight hours after the cable was cut.

Some Pittsburgh-area residents found it impossible to call people in neighboring communities or to make long-distance calls.

The severed cable included a link to a signaling system operated by Illuminet Inc., a company with offices in Kansas and Washington state. Illuminet's signaling system is used by AT&T, MCI WorldCom and other carriers, including Bell Atlantic for its long-distance phone service in New York.

The signaling system routes calls along the most efficient path in the dizzyingly complex telecommunications network that spans the country.

Illuminet's signaling system is also an integral part of phone services such as Caller ID, matching names with phone numbers on incoming calls.

While fiber optic cables are cut so often that they include back-up systems designed to keep the link operating, Illuminet's back-up system failed to operate properly. At least, that's what Bell Atlantic spokesmen were saying.

Penny Thomas, Illuminet's spokeswoman, disputed that version. She said the back-up switches "worked as they were intended." But she said that when the back-up system switched the signals to another point, the system became congested due to the large volume of telephone traffic. It took several hours before service could be resumed.

Thomas said Illuminet is assessing what happened, and said she expected a more complete report today. Thomas said the company's investigation may prove that other factors, in addition to Illuminet's back-up system, may have caused or at least contributed to the disruption in service.

That such a disruption could occur underscored again how complex the telecommunications industry has become in the wake of deregulation and huge technological change.

The federal government has moved to open up local phone service to competition, an arena long dominated by local Bell companies. The local Bells, in turn, are moving into long-distance phone market, where AT&T has been preeminent.

In addition, technological changes have spawned whole industries to supply equipment and develop computer-driven solutions for both local- and long-distance carriers. And the nation is linked by complex telecommunications networks, which are linked at key points throughout the country.

The emergency 911 system was not affected, unlike Sunday evening when the system failed for 21/2 hours, causing disruptions in Pittsburgh as well as Lawrence, Beaver and Westmoreland counties.

The service disruption left many telephone customers confused. It seemed to strike at random.

For example, customers who rely on Bell Atlantic to provide local phone service weren't affected, but those who rely on AT&T and independent phone companies were.

Most long-distance service was disrupted, including New York residents who've switched to Bell Atlantic, a recent entrant into the long-distance market.

-- Doris (, June 30, 2000

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