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What's to blame for AT&T outages?

Recent storms caused many AT&T customers in California to lose phone, TV and Internet service, with about 70,000 still affected.

January 06, 2011|David Lazarus

Steve Robin works out of his La Crescenta home as a real estate investor and property manager. He relies on AT&T for his phone line, fax line, broadband Internet connection and TV service.

So it wasn't a very ho-ho-ho moment when Robin, 50, became one of thousands of AT&T customers statewide who lost service Christmas Day as a series of powerful storms clobbered California.

His frustration grew as the days passed and the only thing AT&T service reps could tell him was that technicians were on the case. It wasn't until Monday night — 10 days after the outage began — that Robin's service was finally restored.

And he can consider himself lucky. As of this week, AT&T said it still had about 70,000 "trouble tickets" to address throughout the state and particularly in Southern California. That's about 10 times the usual number of customers reporting that their service is on the fritz.

Verizon also experienced extensive outages, although the company declined to specify how many customers were affected. Time Warner Cable said its service was disrupted in many SoCal neighborhoods.

The problems highlight the vulnerability of the telecom network — and what technicians say is a shortage of available manpower when service goes down. Recent cutbacks by telecom companies have thinned the ranks of skilled workers capable of responding to an emergency.

It's unreasonable to expect phone and cable companies to keep work crews around on a just-in-case basis. The trick is finding the correct staffing balance that allows the greatest flexibility.

The storm-related loss of phone, TV and Internet service illustrates how reliant we've come to be on these technologies, and how isolated (not to mention unproductive) we become when they're taken away.

"I was dead in the water," Robin said. "To keep working, I had to take my laptop to Starbucks, make business calls on my cellphone, go to other people's homes. I had to do whatever I could to stay connected."

I know the feeling. Our home also lost Internet access for a week and it was like having the umbilical cord severed. Suddenly all that life-sustaining data was gone.

On the plus side, it was a holiday week and neither my wife nor I needed to be online. And our family was able to play some cutthroat games of Clue (isn't it always Col. Mustard committing the foul deed?).

But it's a drag being without a service that we pay handsomely for and that we expect to be provided with a modicum of stability. Isn't that what all those rate increases are about — keeping the network up to snuff?

You never realize how much you've come to depend on having all of cyberspace piped into your home until the line suddenly goes dark.

John Britton, an AT&T spokesman, said he was as surprised as anyone by the scope of the recent outages.

"We've seen the most water damage to the network in more than 10 years," he said.

Britton said hundreds of extra technicians have been rushed to the Southland from Northern California and other states to help get the system up and running again. He said AT&T hopes to have everything fixed by early February.

"We're putting maximum resources into dealing with this," Britton said.

A pair of AT&T technicians, who asked that their names be withheld out of concern that it could cost them their jobs, told me in separate interviews that this is indeed the case — the company is putting on a full-court press to deal with the situation. They said they and their cohorts are working mandatory seven-day weeks and 12-hour days.

But the technicians said the outages didn't need to be this bad.

"The company hasn't kept up with maintenance and upgrades for the network," one said. "That's why the problems are so widespread."

The technicians said cables and phone lines wouldn't have been so waterlogged if their casing and insulation had been inspected and repaired at more regular intervals. Both cited hungry squirrels chewing on lines as a key reason water gets in.

They also said flooding of underground vaults and pipes wouldn't have caused so much damage if the facilities had been regularly maintained.

The technicians said the network would be better maintained, and repairs would be faster, if AT&T hadn't lost so many workers in cutbacks. About 525 California technicians left the company or were reassigned last March.

Britton disputed that AT&T was unprepared for the storm damage.

"This is an emergency situation," he said. "We're not the only ones affected. They even had to close down the freeway because of the weather."

He said the number of technicians has declined in tandem with declines in the number of wire-line phone customers (as opposed to wireless customers). "We staff for the amount of work we have," Britton said.

"This network operates virtually flawlessly 99.999% of the time," he added. "When it doesn't, we're out there maintaining it."

Be that as it may, it's clear that our telecom infrastructure is more fragile than most people realize. In this age of multimedia, digital, high-speed, hold-on-to-your-hat content consumption, any outage can be disastrous for people and businesses.

It's great to get off the grid now and then and chase down mean old Col. Mustard. But that should be at your own choosing, not because you've been knocked offline for weeks.

I'm not telling AT&T how to run its business. But for a company that pocketed $12.3 billion in profit in the third quarter of 2010 alone, maybe it wouldn't hurt to have a few more techs on hand.

Just in case.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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