Phone Failure Prompts Calls for Regulations


Tuesday's massive telephone breakdown in New York, the fourth major disruption of a U.S. telecommunications network this year, underscores how cutthroat phone competition and reduced regulation have left the nation vulnerable to serious disruptions in commerce and communications, officials said Wednesday.

As a result, the foul-up that cut off long-distance lines and stranded air passengers in the nation's largest city is likely to lead to greater regulation of phone companies throughout the country and new industry cooperation during emergencies.

Red-faced officials at American Telephone & Telegraph admitted on Wednesday that their latest breakdown resulted from a low-tech snafu and human operating errors at a switching office in Lower Manhattan, and was entirely avoidable.

"This should never have happened. Long-distance services should never have been disrupted," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and finance and the author of pending legislation to toughen telephone company operating standards.

Markey and other congressional leaders and Federal Communications Commission officials said they would step up efforts to force telephone companies to deliver--even in an era of deregulation and competition--on their basic duty to provide universal access to a dial tone.

"We believe that even with deregulation and unregulated telecommunications businesses, the phone companies cannot relax their obligation to provide basic service," Markey said.

FCC Chairman Alfred C. Sykes, one of two FCC commissioners stranded in New York-area airports Tuesday night when air traffic controllers could not operate their telephone-connected radar system, called on AT&T; Chairman Robert E. Allen on Wednesday to explain why the nation's largest phone company was hit with its third network failure in two years.

FCC regulators also scurried to release later this week a new set of rules requiring greater cooperation among phone companies during network crises.

"The disruptions to our telephone system could be avoided if there were more cooperation and planning among the network operators," said William Davidson, a USC business professor and telecommunications expert. "AT&T;, MCI and US Sprint have invested $25 billion to install transmission systems. We have so much unused capacity at any one time that it is absurd for anyone to be inconvenienced by a breakdown in one carrier's operations. This latest problem should trigger new regulations and standards for cooperation and back-up among carriers."

AT&T; officials said late Wednesday that the breakdown occurred as the result of a series of glitches and operator misjudgments during an otherwise routine transfer at 10 a.m. Tuesday from Consolidated Edison's public electric power supply to the company's internal supply.

The transfer, required because warm weather was placing excessive demands on the public power supply, went awry when AT&T;'s back-up diesel generators failed to kick on because of a malfunctioning rectifier. That failure, in turn, triggered a shift to the company's secondary back-up power system, a lone 48-volt battery with a reserve life of about six hours.

AT&T; officials said the shift to battery power triggered both a series of audible alarms and messages that should have been noticed by operators manning the station's central command console. But, for reasons AT&T; investigators say they are still trying to uncover, the operators failed to notice that they were running on battery power.

In fact, AT&T; officials said, operators did not become aware of the situation until they tried to switch the station back to Consolidated Edison's power supply at 4:30 p.m. and ran into difficulty. At that point, the operators discovered the malfunctioning diesel rectifier. However, they also discovered the nearly depleted reserve battery, and before they could fix the system, the battery ran out and AT&T; was without power to one of its most crucial switching centers.

FCC officials said their proposed new rules, set for release later this week, would require U.S. phone companies to notify the commission and other telephone companies of any failures in their systems.

The commission is also set to ask the telephone companies to install appropriate safeguards to prevent failures in one part of the network from spreading to other sections--a problem that caused disruptions to the Pacific Bell and Bell Atlantic networks in June and crippled the AT&T; network for a memorable nine hours in January, 1990.

Any additional requirements for cooperation among the phone companies, said James Spurlock, an official in the FCC's common carrier division, must come from Congress.

Markey's office said his legislation, still to be introduced, would give the FCC the power it needs to require greater cooperation.

"Policy-makers have an obligation to ensure that the public switch network runs on the highest possible quality standards," he said. "This latest outage . . . is yet another indicator of the importance of sharpening congressional and regulator focus on the issues of telephone network quality and reliability."

However, analysts doubted that the phone companies, already locked in fierce battle for customers, would readily cooperate with their competitors.

"They (AT&T;) don't want to make their competitors' networks more reliable by backing them up. They think they would lose a competitive advantage," said Berge Ayvazian, a telecommunication analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston market research firm.

In addition, analysts said, other telephone companies, particularly fiber optic cable providers now entering the nation's metropolitan areas, will be loathe to cooperate with AT&T; because one of their reasons for existence is to provide an alternative for business customers in the event of network failures.


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