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    Mystery glitch fells long-distance

    Customers in the Bay Area are forced to put their calls on hold after a malfunction halts Verizon long-distance.

    By AMY WIMMER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 1, 2001


    A Verizon computer glitch shut down long-distance telephone service for more than 10 hours Saturday, reminding Tampa Bay and the surrounding area that in an age of technology, telephone lines aren't just for conversations anymore.

    Businesses couldn't accept credit cards. No one could use a toll-free number to reserve airline tickets or check bank account balances. Residents who take advantage of weekend rates to call relatives couldn't complete their calls, and the relatives couldn't call into the six county Verizon service area: Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota.

    "We forget in this day and age that long distance isn't just about long distance anymore," said Bob Lorentzen, president of Bradenton-based Video Techniques Inc., who missed a Saturday morning conference call because of the outage. "Business is done across area codes, and they're seamless. You don't think about it."

    The collapse of long-distance service affected 2.4-million telephone lines, said Verizon spokesman Bob Elek. He said the shutdown crippled calls into and out of the service area, though local calls were still completed.

    At some points during the morning, service was spotty: Sometimes people outside the area could call in, but sometimes residents in the affected area couldn't even place local calls.

    He said a "software process that has worked literally millions of times before" inexplicably malfunctioned shortly after midnight Saturday.

    "It's just such an unusual occurrence. We're kind of scratching our heads right now," Elek said. "But you can bet we'll find out what it was."

    Whatever the problem, it even disabled Verizon's second line of defense. Both the main system and the backup were down from 1 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

    Emergency phone lines were not affected, though 911 dispatchers said dozens of people called them to report trouble placing long-distance calls.

    Some of those customers resorted to dialing 911 because the Verizon customer service number, an 800 line, failed with the rest of the area's 800 numbers. One woman called the Times to ask whether a natural disaster had struck the area.

    At Hickory Smokehouse Bar-B-Que in Pinellas Park, manager William Bamis' customers paid for their meals with cash. Most credit card-swiping machines rely on 800 numbers to authorize transactions.

    "One person had a checkbook and said, 'Can I write a check?' I said, 'Sure."' Bamis said. "How could I say no?"

    And at Joe's Quality Fresh Produce in St. Petersburg, bananas and tomatoes piled up at the cash register, abandoned by customers who had intended to pay with credit cards. Many returned later with cash or a checkbook, said Michele Zani, who was running a register Saturday.

    "They were naturally upset, but they were understanding," Zani said.

    At St. Petersburg's Home Shopping Network, area customers could not order merchandise or reach customer service. Jon Gieselman, HSN's vice president of advertising and public relations, said the company did take orders from other parts of the country.

    "It affected us to the degree that customers in the Tampa and St. Pete area couldn't order or call in for customer service issues," Gieselman said. "We have no way of quantifying how many people would have called or did call.

    "Any time our customers can't get through, it's obviously a big concern to us, but at the end of the day, it wasn't that significant," he continued. "It did impact sales and customer service."

    At the National Weather Service, weather spotters throughout the region used their backup system, ham radios, to report severe weather.

    "We have a system in place in case there are technological problems, and it worked pretty well," said Walt Zaleski, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "This was a good test that communication can continue, even when land lines are down."

    Verizon is the phone company created last summer by the $90-billion merger of GTE, formerly the local phone provider for the Tampa Bay area, and Bell Atlantic.

    Because Verizon provides local phone service, all long-distance providers that do business in Tampa Bay and the surrounding area were affected by the outage. "All long-distance calls funnel in and out of the network," said Elek, Verizon's spokesman. "Long-distance calls travel across a national network and have to interconnect into the local networks."

    At least that's how it's supposed to work. Now Verizon is searching for answers.

    "We know it's some kind of software glitch. We're not totally clear on what it was," Elek said. "We're still researching it."

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