Telephone outages, such as the ones that affected more than 10 million people on the East and West coasts last month, could recur unless local telephone companies start talking with each other, federal investigators have concluded.
According to the first in-depth report on the incidents, prepared by the Federal Communications Commission and turned over to a congressional telecommunications subcommittee late yesterday, at least four times during the past year unreported telephone outages took place in the United States, Japan and Sweden. Although less widespread than those that hit several states late last month, the outages were nearly identical to them, based on a similar software glitch, said a federal source familiar with the report and investigation.
But, instead of the telephone companies and equipment manufacturers sharing information about the outages -- a move that could have prevented the more widespread failures later -- company officials stonewalled, the source said.
"The phone companies have been oversensitive, in some cases, in withholding information from competitors. The CEOs of the seven Baby Bells each consider the others competitors," the source said.
"From our view, the real story is not that we found a single smoking gun, but that we found a flawed process here that could lead to serious problems in the future unless we fix it," he added.
To improve the process, the FCC is mandating timely reporting of phone outages to the commission and setting up a meeting with the local phone companies and makers of equipment.
The report attributes the immediate cause of the outages in Maryland, Pennsylvania, California, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia to signal transfer points, multimillion-dollar computers that help direct the flow of calls on local networks, the source said. The computers were built by DSC Communications Corp., in Plano, Texas, which has admitted leaving out crucial software programming.
Although the system outage in Japan also involved DSC equipment, the Swedish problem did not, said the source, who declined to identify the other manufacturer. That finding is significant, because it suggests larger problems with the standards set for the many manufacturers who build equipment used on Signalling System 7, the advanced network protocol used to set up individual telephone calls.
Terry Adams, a DSC spokesman, said that "when problems arise, we can see what happens to our particular piece of equipment, but we have no control over what happens across the network."
Cynthia Lucenius, a spokeswoman for Bellcore, the research and development arm for the seven regional Bell companies, said its investigation was not complete. She said she would be briefed on preliminary findings today.