Just two weeks after Sprint launched its Internet service, about 100 to 150 customers found themselves locked out of cyberspace today during a five hour, intermittent outage.
The glitch, minuscule in comparison to America Online's 19-hour total blackout last month, nevertheless, caused concern for a service marketing itself as reliable and dependable, said Jim Dodd, vice president of Internet Access Services.
Up until today, Sprint had a great success rate, bragging that customers were up 99.97 percent of the time, Dodd said.
But, he added that, "if one user doesn't get in it concerns us."
Sprint accepted that glitches would happen when it launched its service, initially free to Sprint customers. But, "candidly," Dodd added, "We didn't expect even this kind of intermittent performance in this early stage of this launch."
The problem was traced to an Oracle database that serves as Sprint's authentication server, said Tom Moore, director of engineering. There were periods--lasting up to 45 minutes each--when the database would only allow one authentication hub to authenticate users, locking out the other eight.
Moore did not know whether it was a human or mechanical error that caused the problem but, he said, "I'm speculating it was human right now."
Sprint is not alone in its pursuit to provide customers near-perfect service from a technology that is still in its infancy.
As telephone companies enter the mad scramble for new Internet users, they tend to promise the same reliability to which their telephone customers have grown accustomed. Telephone companies do have outages, but they happen a lot less frequently than Internet Service Providers.
Phone companies--along with most other ISPs--are extremely sensitive about even the word "outage," especially in the wake of the AOL outage.
Last week the Tampa Tribune featured a story about GTE's local breakdown on the information highway, reporting that customers encountered busy signals trying to get on the new service and that email delivery had been late.
GTE officials bristled at even the implication customers were locked out.
"We never crashed," Gary Avery, director of sales and marketing, said in an interview today. In the case of the busy signals, GTE in the Tampa area simply got more customers than it had expected and GTE is adding equipment to take care of that demand.
In the case of delayed email, GTE was a victim of one of its own customers, who conducted a massive spam of AOL users. In turn, they replied both to the user, whose service was temporarily suspended, and to GTE, overloading GTE's system, Avery explained.
GTE had to offload its incoming messages onto another server to accommodate them. It then continued sending and resending messages until all the mail was verified.
Like Sprint, GTE seemed a little overwhelmed by all the attention it got from seemingly minor problems.
"The Internet still gets a lot of hype," Avery said. But, he added, knocking on wood, that as of yet, GTE has not experienced a real crash.
"We're not arrogant enough to pretend it could never happen to us," he said. "But we work real hard to see that it doesn't."