Monday, September 17, 2001

Phone service snafu pits ISPs against Verizon

Published in Interface Tech News

CONCORD, N.H. ‹ Phone customers in New Hampshire have had problems getting telephone dial tones since 1999, leading to dangerous situations when even 911 is unreachable in some towns. The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission has been discussing the situation for two years and, despite the filing in May of a Verizon New Hampshire proposal that could alleviate the problem, the commission has not yet determined a course of action.

"We're still analyzing the filing," said PUC chief engineer Kate Bailey, who predicted there could be a technical review session before the commission rules on the proposal, and offered no projected timetable for a ruling.

High telephone circuit use has clogged some Verizon New Hampshire central office switches, causing dial-tone delays for outbound callers, fast busy signals for inbound callers, and, in some cases, lack of any dial tone.

The N.H. PUC requires that a dial tone be available within three seconds after a customer picks up a phone. If too many other phones are in use on the same circuit, this standard cannot be met.

The congestion, which the PUC, Verizon, and the New Hampshire Internet Service Providers Association (NHISPA) attribute primarily to increasing use of dial-up Internet services, has only worsened in the past two years. Verizon New Hampshire has been installing equipment at affected switching offices throughout the state and has been experiencing a form of rolling blackouts in the phone system: as congestion is eased in one place, another location becomes overloaded.

One proposed solution is for New Hampshire ISPs to reduce their use of dial-in, or "switch-side" access to the Internet, and move instead to higher-bandwidth, dedicated-circuit systems like DSL, which are called "trunk-side" services.

The ISPs like the idea, saying they do not presently have access to trunk-side lines. "We don't have alternatives to the dial-up. They're not cost-effective for us," said Brian Susnock, president of the Nashua, N.H.-based Destek Group.

Destek has a federal suit pending against Verizon New Hampshire alleging the company engaged in improper procedures regarding exceptions to standard tariffs.

Susnock said there are, however, cheap workaround products available from Verizon New Hampshire, including alarm circuits intended to maintain constant contact between a burglar alarm system and a security company or police station.

Susnock said those circuits are not engineered for data transmission, and can have reliability problems when carrying data, but he uses them anyway because they are so much cheaper.

The PUC's solution is for Verizon to sell so-called "dry copper loops" to ISPs for data traffic. In response to a PUC request, on May 29 Verizon New Hampshire filed a so-called "illustrative tariff" to show the PUC and others what a tariff for dry copper might look like.

The proposal, still being examined by the PUC, has come under fire from the ISPs for charging excessive service fees, being inconsistent with Verizon Online's pricing practices, and for being exclusionary to ISPs.

The proposal would allow Verizon New Hampshire to charge ISPs between $200 and $2,200 in one-time fees to condition a copper loop for data transmission.

Verizon spokesman Erle Pierce said removal of these devices is time-consuming and expensive. "It's a lot of work to go out and unload those copper pairs," he said. Susnock said there is no need for Verizon workers to remove hardware from existing cables, and said there is a database which will tell engineers whether dry copper lines already exist in an area.

"Are there records which will tell you whether a cable pair is loaded or unloaded? Absolutely," Pierce said, but said they are only available for lines which already carry Verizon New Hampshire voice traffic, not for cables which currently carry no traffic. And the records are available only to what Pierce called "authorized CLECs." Pierce added, "Generally speaking, [the ISPs] want all the advantages of being a regulated company, without the regulation."

Chip Sullivan, a lawyer for Destek and for the NHISPA, said the ISPs are willing to pay for access to Verizon's engineering database, but balked at having to pay Verizon $5,000 per month in registration fees, just to be able to place orders for dry copper. On June 6, the NHPUC agreed and waived the monthly fee.

As for the alleged pricing discrepancy, Verizon Online offers DSL service in New Hampshire for $49.95 per month, less than the $64 proposed monthly cost of dry copper Verizon New Hampshire proposes. The dry copper service does not include actual Internet access, Web hosting space or e-mail, which are included in Verizon Online's fee. Pierce said the price difference is because Verizon Online buys "pre-qualified" copper, which does not need to be unloaded, and gets volume discounts.

The proposal would also prevent ISPs from buying dry copper in areas where Verizon and collocated CLECS are offering DSL service. If ISPs were operating in an area and a CLEC extended service to that area, the ISPs would be cut off. In the proposed tariff, Verizon's justification is that the ISPs have no regulation and therefore could use non-standard protocols over their wires which would cause interference with the regulated companies' services.

While the PUC has been investigating and discussing the matter and its related issues for over two years, Sullivan said much of the wait has been due to understaffing at the PUC. The deadlines for commission responses to Verizon filings, he said, are "faster than staffing allows." And even Verizon filed its illustrative tariff in 60 days, rather than the 30 days ordered by the PUC on March 29. The PUC's order promised a response from the staff within 30 days of the filing, which was on May 29.

Because there is no timetable for the next step of the evaluation process, New Hampshire telephone customers will have to hope they have a dial tone when they pick up the phone to call 911.