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ISPs say MCI outage could kill businesses

Dozens of small ISPs that rely on MCI WorldCom's data network fear that the company's recent outages will drive them out of business.

Steven Efurd is afraid of losing his seven-year-old Internet service provider business in Tyler, Texas.

He's lost his connection to the Net for eight days now--the first extended outage in his company's history, he says--and hundreds of his customers are beginning to flee.

And there's nothing he can do about it. Like dozens of other small ISPs around the country, Efurd's East Texas Global Services relies on MCI WorldCom's data network to connect to the Internet. That company is still suffering a crippling nationwide network outage, putting Efurd out of luck--and, if it continues much longer, possibly out of business.

"If I go through the weekend without Net access...I might as well lock the door and go home," he said.

Unfortunately for Efurd, and countless other businesses and consumers, the nightmare is likely to continue through the weekend.

MCI WorldCom said late today it will take a domestic frame-relay network platform out of service at noon ET tomorrow until "approximately" noon Sunday. The company said the 24-hour down time is needed "to restore stability" to the network.

Around the country, scores of small ISPs that depend on MCI WorldCom's data network to connect to the Internet are offline. Like Efurd, many are bleeding customers at rates they say will shortly kill their businesses.

In Plainview, Iowa, Powerline Internet says it has lost close to 20 percent of its 600 customers in the last week. A.K. Jordan, president of Intellitech in Highland, New Jersey, says he's already lost about 10 percent of his 1,000 customers but can't really tell how badly the company has been shaken yet.

"I can't even gauge how much bleeding there is, because email is down," Jordan said. "Customers can't even send me a nasty email about the problem."

The problem has been compounded by the way many Internet service providers buy their connections from wholesalers. RMI.Net, a Colorado-based service provider, sells data connections to 150 ISPs nationwide. Because its backbone connections have been caught in MCI WorldCom's problems, 66 of its customers were still down as of midday today, RMI spokesman Mark Stutz said.

Those customers in turn serve about 200,000 to 250,000 subscribers, Stutz added. And like many other companies, RMI says MCI WorldCom has not been forthcoming about the problems or helpful in trying to mitigate their effects.

"MCI WorldCom has the Internet's version of the Exxon Valdez on its hands, and they're acting like a few turtles got a little oil on them," Stutz said. "This is about as bad as it could be."

A week of network nightmares MCI WorldCom's woes began more than a week ago, when a planned software upgrade to their high-speed data network went awry Thursday evening.

The problems are grounded in the frame relay network--a data technology similar to the public Internet that breaks files and messages into individual "packets" of information and sends them separately to their destination. These networks are heavily used by businesses, banks, and ATM machines.

The source of the problem was a software upgrade to the Lucent Technologies hardware that routes data though the networks. Teams of engineers from Lucent, MCI WorldCom, and Bell Labs have been working on finding the source of the problem all week but still haven't isolated the root cause, a Lucent spokeswoman said.

Since midweek, the company has been saying it has been contacting customers individually and bringing them back online one by one. A spokeswoman said the original outage affected 15 percent of the company's network and 30 percent of its customers, but that number is dropping as fixes are made, she added.

But many customers, ranging from small businesses to the Chicago Board of Trade, have complained bitterly that MCI WorldCom's efforts have been inadequate.

That dissatisfaction, which is spreading by the day as the outages continue, has raised the specter of wide defections from the company's data business. In 1998, AT&T had a similar outage which lasted for several days, but CEO C. Michael Armstrong quickly took public responsibility for the problems. That helped keep all but about 2 percent of its customers on board, analysts said.

But while MCI WorldCom tries to fix its problems, ISPs say their customers are blaming them--and until MCI WorldCom makes a more public statement about the scope of its problems, there's little the small companies can do.

"Because MCI is not forthcoming in the press, when I say it's not us, it's hard to get someone to believe you," Jordan said. "They're saying its congestion in their network. This isn't congestion. This is not a little problem. It's shutting my door."

Some ISPs are talking about lawsuits but are reviewing their contracts and waiting until the problem is fixed to see what MCI WorldCom ultimately does.

MCI WorldCom says it doesn't want to discuss the problems until they know what caused them. "Until we find out what was the root cause, we're not going to guess what caused it," spokeswoman Linda Laughlin said.

But every day the telephone company maintains its public near-silence hurts the ISPs, they say.

"My reputation has gone to hell," Efurd said. "I try to be honest with everybody, but of course they think you're lying. And how do you recover from word of mouth?"