Inside Recent Phone Outages

By Joel Grover and Matt Goldberg
|  Thursday, Jan 13, 2011  |  Updated 6:59 AM PDT
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Phone company insiders tell NBCLA that <a title=AT&T hasn't told customers the whole story, of why there have been massive outages of landline phone service since December's heavy rains." />

Phone company insiders tell NBCLA that AT&T hasn't told customers the whole story, of why there have been massive outages of landline phone service since December's heavy rains.

Phone company insiders tell NBCLA that AT&T hasn't told customers the whole story, of why there have been massive outages of landline phone service since December's heavy rains.

Thousands of homes and businesses, who get their landline service from AT&T and Verizon, are still waiting for service to be restored.

Six AT&T technicians, from different parts of the region, told NBCLA that part of the reason for the massive outages lies beneath the streets of Southern California.

Underground, you'll find miles and miles of aging phone cable installed decades ago, which is still used by Verizon and AT&T, to bring a dial tone to your home or business.

These aging lines are called “pulp cable,” because they’re so old, they’re insulated with old-fashioned paper.

" If they get wet, the paper gets wet and they short out," says an AT&T technician, who asked us not to use his name for fear of losing his job.

All six AT&T techs who contacted NBCLA, tell us the recent outages are due partly to an old network of decaying phone cables and wires, that they say, the company should've replaced years ago.

"AT&T's infrastructure is in very poor, to horrible condition," says one AT&T technician.

ATT says its network of cables and wires and boxes that provide landline phone service, works almost all of the time.

"99.99 percent of the time this network operates virtually flawlessly. There are problems, there are issues, " says John Britton, AT&T's spokesman.

Those problems arise when there are heavy rains, like we had in December, which knocked out phone service to homes and businesses across Southern California.

Elizabeth and Tim Bennett lost phone service at their Winnetka home before Christmas, and were told it would be three weeks to get it fixed. "That's insane, absolutely insane," said Tim Bennett.

When NBCLA questioned AT&T about the Bennett's three-week wait to get their phone line fixed, the company immediately sent a technician to fix their phone.

But many other AT&T and Verizon landline customers have been told it will be up to a month until their service is restored.

The long wait for repairs, insiders say, is because AT&T has been cutting the workforce that repairs landlines.

In fact a document NBCLA obtained from the California Public Utilities Commission, shows that AT&T cut its total landline workforce 61%, from 1991 to 2008.

Says an AT&T technician, "You can’t go out and be honest with the customer and say, ‘the reason you waited 25 days or two weeks or 14 days, is because the company doesn’t have enough personnel."

AT&T explains the workforce numbers a different way. Britton says, "I actually have more technicians now than I did in 2005. "

NBCLA asked him if all those technicians were servicing landlines, and Britton replied, "They’re servicing television too."

AT&T now provides TV and Internet to homes, and the company admits more and more of its workforce is focusing on newer technologies.

Consumers groups say, the company just doesn't care much anymore about its landline business.

“They don’t want to maintain that service, they want to put as little as possible into that service," says Regina Costa, a lawyer with The Utility Reform Network, a consumer watchdog group.

Verizon also admits its workforce that repairs landlines has been reduced in recent years.

But spokesman Jon Davies says, "The number of Verizon employees in California has decreased over time because of the greater efficiency we've seen as we've increased the use of fiber optics in our network.”

But to restore landline service from the recent outages, Davies says Verizon has had to put technicians on overtime and bring in extra techs from outside of Southern California.

Both companies say they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on maintaining their network and infrastructure.

Everyone agrees that more and more people are relying on their cell phones to communicate. But keep in mind, 70% of Southern California homes still have landlines, and many of those homes will depend on those lines for years to come.

Do you have more information about this story?  Do you have another story for us to investigate?  Email:Joel.Grover@NBCUNI.com

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