During a business trip to Washington recently, Preston Peek and a colleague had to wait in 90-degree heat for a technician to show up and let them in their car, a sedan equipped with every high-tech toy on the market.
The reason: An attendant apparently had jostled the car while parking it, causing the car to reject the owner's key in the door-lock.
"We sat for two hours in the heat waiting for somebody to bring us another key so we could get into this technological marvel," said Mr. Peek, a corporate communications manager for Northern Telecom, a Canadian manufacturer of telecommunications hardware. "I often think that's what our networks are going to be like in the future. . . . Obviously, we will benefit from them, but they're going to have to be managed correctly."
The sensitive nature -- and management challenges -- of today's ultra-sophisticated phone networks has been painfully clear since June 26, when a computer malfunction crippled phone service in Maryland, Washington, Virginia and parts of West Virginia. The outage, the largest in memory at Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., left up to 5 million customers without local phone service for most of the day.
Since then, a spate of outages has hit western Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and, most recently, San Francisco. The outages have left millions of people out of touch for periods lasting from a few minutes to more than eight hours.
Red-faced telephone company officials at Bell Atlantic Corp. and Pacific Bell, the two affected regional phone companies, have been unable to explain the mysterious outages despite JTC round-the-clock investigations by some of the nation's foremost telecommunications experts.
Nobody is accusing the Bells of neglecting their networks, which are arguably the most sophisticated and best-run in the world. But the flip side of having a state-of-the-art network is having to maintain it -- and knowing how to fix it when it breaks down.
"There are real concerns about the viability of the network as it becomes more complex," said John Celentano, a telecommunications consultant with Samuel & Co. Inc. in Randallstown.
Today's super-complex phone networks -- constantly being upgraded to handle fax and other consumer services -- require a level of technical specialization that wasn't necessary before, according to Tony L. Alotto, director of network strategic planning for US Sprint. That means engineers and technicians spend more time learning about specific aspects of a network and less time concentrating on the network as a whole.
So when breakdowns do occur, it takes an organized effort to fix it, he said.
"One consequence of computerization is that it is reaching levels of sophistication where an ordinary engineer just can't put his finger on a button and fix a problem," said People's Counsel John Glynn, who represents the interests of ratepayers before the Maryland Public Service Commission. "And when [the phone network] fails, you are out of touch with the world."
Even the collective expertise of the managers of the regional Bell phone companies has been unable to solve the mystery behind the recent spate of outages in their state-of-the-art phone
The only common link so far is some hardware manufactured by DSC Communications Corp. Inc. of Plano, Texas. But no conclusion has been reached on what role, if any, DSC's equipment played in causing the outages. The phone companies' inability to track down the cause is all the more troubling considering the brainpower that has already been applied to the problem.
After the first outage, Bell Atlantic assembled what amounted to a technological SWAT team of the nation's top telecommunications experts to track down the culprit. The team, composed of representatives from Northern Telecom, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., Bell Atlantic, Pacific Bell and Bellcore, the research arm of the seven Bells, has come up with a half-dozen possible explanations that will be tested in the laboratory starting this week.
But so far, there is no hard evidence to substantiate one theory over another.
The failure of the Bells' networks, and the inability of telecommunications experts to identify the cause of the problem, has heightened concerns in Washington about the long-term integrity of the U.S. infrastructure.
The Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for regulating phone service in the United States, plans to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to review the outage problem. There is also talk of a congressional hearing next week to discuss what, if anything, should be done to make prevent further outages from occurring.
Bell Atlantic and Pacific Bell, meanwhile, are continuing to work around-the-clock to search for the elusive answer to why the outages occurred.
Starting this week, investigators at three test sites across the country will attempt to replicate in the lab conditions that led to the outages. Investigators will then try to look for clues to the breakdown's cause.
But even that isn't a certainty. At a press conference last week, a spokesman for Bellcore conceded that engineers may not be able to precisely reproduce field conditions. That means critical clues could continue to elude investigators for some time. Even if the cause of the problem is found tomorrow -- and there are no indications that it will be -- the Bells' reputation as the world's foremost experts on networks has been tarnished.
Like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after the Challenger tragedy, the Bells will likely be grappling with the fallout from the events of the past two weeks for years to come, predicted People's Counsel John Glynn.
"If you don't hold yourself out to the world as 100 percent reliable, then you don't have this problem," he said. "But if you do, you're going to hear about it. . . . It's like what happened the first time you realized your mother lied to you. It's a psychological jolt."