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The Politics Of Phone Failure


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THE POLITICS OF PHONE FAILURE

The massive network failures that knocked out most local telephone service in Washington, D. C., surrounding states, and Los Angeles last month weren't anything for the phone companies to brag about. But some resourceful lobbyists allied with the Baby Bells think they've found a way to turn such disasters to their advantage. They argue that the outages--traced to programming errors in a supplier's software--show why the Baby Bells should be permitted to design and manufacture their own telecommunications gear.

The seven regional Bells have long chafed against the manufacturing ban contained in the consent decree that broke up American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in 1984. They say that the restriction retards the development of new equipment needed to keep the U. S. out front in telecommunications.

CROSSED WIRES. The failure of signaling networks at Bell Atlantic Corp. and Pacific Telesis Group plays into the hands of the pro-manufacturing forces. It shows the importance of close cooperation between phone companies and equipment makers. The failures may spur Congress to pass, and President Bush to sign, a long-delayed bill that would allow the Bells to make equipment. Supporters of the bill argue that the Bells must be freed from the "judicial tyranny" of U. S. District Court Judge Harold H. Greene, who monitors them for antitrust behavior.

But the phone disaster may not produce as many lobbying dividends as the Bells and their backers would wish. That's because Greene, despite being labeled an obstructionist, ruled on July 10 that Bell Atlantic was perfectly free to cooperate with its supplier, DSC Communications Corp., on diagnosing and solving the software problems in the errant switches. And he noted that there was absolutely nothing in the decree that would keep the Bells from rigorously testing products they buy from DSC and others. His decision undermined the argument that Greene alone stands between the Bells and a secure telecommunications network.

The recent snafus may not end up paying off for the Bells. But, once more, whatever happens in Washington seems to create an opening for someone.Peter Coy in New York


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