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Computer Malfunction Disrupts Phone Service

June 27, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Service disruptions blamed on computer trouble plagued millions of telephones in the nation’s capital and three nearby states Wednesday and phone users across much of California had similar problems.

In Washington, government agencies fared better than private homes and businesses. The White House said it felt no major impact and added that in a pinch President Bush could get through to any telephone in the country on special high-priority lines.

But Bell Atlantic said 6.7 million telephone lines in Washington, Maryland, Virginia and parts of West Virginia were hit with service disruptions.

A software glitch disrupted Pacific Bell service in the Los Angeles area at midday Wednesday, interfering with phone calls in much of the 213, 818, 714 and 805 area codes.

″It seems like our software just decided to take the day off,″ said Pacific Bell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen in Orange County.

Pacific Bell officials said most service was restored by midafternoon.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Alfred C. Sikes issued a statement vowing to ″find out the cause of this problem.″

He said initial reports indicated the root of the trouble ″may be both network and software problems.″

Jay Grossman, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, said the problem affected most local calls and left outbound long-distance service sporadic. He said inbound calls appeared to be functioning normally.

The disruption occurred about 11:40 a.m. EDT while workers for Bell Atlantic’s Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. in Baltimore were working on a computer that controlled the distribution of traffic in the calling network.

Backup systems that were supposed to reroute calls in the event of a breakdown also malfunctioned.

C&P is a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Bell Atlantic, one of seven regional phone companies created by the 1984 breakup of the Bell System. A disruption in the C&P system would not extend outside the mid-Atlantic states that Bell Atlantic serves.

At early evening, officials said they were still not certain when service would be restored. ″The network has come back up temporarily and then collapsed in places,″ said Michel Daley, a C&P spokesman.

The disruption forced people to improvise.

When office telephones malfunctioned, some workers tried the pay phones on the street.

″This is just terrible,″ said Dee Sibley, who works for a Washington legal firm. ″We rely so heavily on the telephone to do our business. Right now I’m standing here at a pay phone returning calls from clients, some of whom we’re working on important business for.″

Joseph Deoudes, vice president and owner of District Courier Services Inc. in Washington, said telephone problems ″paralyzed″ his business.

″It’s really rough,″ he said. ″I’m not making any money today.″

He said the business normally gets 500 to 600 calls for courier services daily but had received only about 30 on Wednesday. He said he had issued walkie-talkies owned by his company to several of his busiest customers but added that more troubles on Thursday would lead to layoffs.

″I have 15 couriers sitting here now and if it’s like this at 10 o’clock tomorrow I’m sending most of them home,″ he said. He said two weeks of troubles could put him out of business.

Communication by fax, which has become a mainstay of Washington life, slowed to a crawl.

Eric Birn of the public relations firm David Apter & Associates found that he had to resort to the ways of the past.

″Because of today’s phone fiasco through D.C., we’re sending you this the old fashion way - by foot,″ he wrote in a message accompanying an announcement of a news conference.

Many businesses that rely on the telephone were hurting.

Leighton Johnson, who works at a downtown branch of Domino’s Pizza, said that ″business is definitely slower than it usually is this time of the day.″

Calls between the White House, Pentagon and other agencies were not affected by the outage. Nor were calls to the emergency 911 lines.

At the White House, a few difficulties were encountered. But overall, officials said, there was little impact.

″We never had a problem with our phone system,″ said White House spokesman Gary Foster. He said that the White House also had the capability of making a phone call to a specific phone in the affected areas ″in an emergency.″

State Department officials also said they were having no problem. They said they were relying on the department’s internal five-digit dialing system for local calls and that long-distance seemed unimpaired.

But two State Department officials caught on Capitol Hill with an urgent message for their office tried in vain to break through, first on congressional phones, then on a cellular phone. Finally, they had to hail a cab for the 20-block ride to Foggy Bottom to deliver the message in person.

The computer system that malfunctioned had been in place for about two years. Ironically, the company’s older equipment continued to operate properly, officials said.

″The system is almost entirely computerized,″ Grossman said.

Asked whether sabotage was suspected, Daley said, ″I would think not ... That would surprise us all if it was.″