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Spokane Escapes Phone Gridlock Internet Users Causing Havoc With Seattle Phone Service

From Staff And Wire Reports

The surge of Internet use that swamped US West Communications’ circuits in the Seattle area has not spilled over to Spokane, a company spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Area Manager Annette Miller said none of the company’s local trunk lines are showing the overuse that created unintended call-blocking around Seattle.

Users were getting a fast busy signal or a recorded “all circuits are busy” message when trying to make calls into downtown Seattle.

Last week, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commissioner Sharon Nelson sent a letter to US West outlining regulator concerns and possible penalties if the problem wasn’t fixed.

US West Vice President Scott McLellan fired back Friday with his own letter.

“The main source of the problem is the improper rate structure that exists in Washington,” he wrote. “As long as retail and wholesale consumers receive unlimited local service for a flat rate, there is no incentive to utilize their telecommunications service in an efficient manner and inter-office trunk blockage will continue.”

US West has waged a running battle with the utilities commission on rates, culminating in a ruling last year that not only denied the company an increase, but ordered a rollback as well.

Without a change in regulator philosophy, McLellan wrote, “Washington’s statewide local communication networks will receive too little investment, too much use and the result will be digital gridlock that will make the current situation seem minor.”

He said Internet use doubled traffic on some Seattle circuits in just the four months since September. Although US West has bolstered its system, it has not been able to keep up.

The increase was 60 percent in the two weeks following an offer by America OnLine of unlimited access for $19.95 per month.

Because AOL users were having difficulty connecting with the service, he said, many would not sign off once the connection was made. Some computers linked up Monday were still on the line Friday, he said.

By comparison, McLellan said, a typical phone conversation lasts six-and-one-half minutes.

“The network was not designed for calls that last five days,” he said.

AOL, under pressure from authorities in 36 states because of its inability to provide customer service, has backed off the flat-rate offer until additional equipment is installed.

Ed Herbert, vice president of Great Northern Technologies in Spokane, said most local Internet providers keep the ratio of clients to modems low in order to minimize access conflicts.

So far, he said, traffic increases have not prompted complaints from customers or US West.

Herbert said Great Northern recently ran a promotion that waived set-up fees if customers switched from another access provider.

Ninety percent of new customers were jumping from AOL, he said, adding, “We’ve seen a lot of benefits from their problems.”

Great Northern does not offer a flat-rate service, Herbert said.

Commission spokeswoman Marilyn Meehan questioned how increased Internet usage could be the cause of US West’s service woes if businesses are the ones complaining but peak on-line time occurs in the evening.

And she dismissed the prospect of altering rate plans to boost the giant company’s revenues.

“They certainly have plenty of money to buy and invest in cable systems and international telecommunication companies in other countries,” she said. “If they have that kind of money … I mean, Seattle is their largest market.”

Company officials said they expect to meet with UTC officials on Monday.

, DataTimes

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