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Working to restore Manhattan phone service

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy, communications companies are attempting to reconnect customers by working around damaged networks and call center facilities.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy, communications companies such as Allegiance Telecom, Verizon Communications and Sprint are attempting to reconnect customers by working around damaged networks and call center facilities in the area.

A major phone-switching facility, where communications equipment is housed and from where calls are routed, was damaged by falling debris after Tuesday's terrorist attack, carrier executives said.

As businesses and employees return to work in the coming weeks, an unenviable task faces many phone companies. Thousands of companies have been cut off from telephone service. Carriers are attempting to restore phone service as quickly as possible.

At the same time, some companies whose offices were destroyed may be forced to relocate outside of Manhattan, but keeping their existing phone numbers already known by customers, suppliers and business partners could be critical. For the phone companies, retaining the same phone number for businesses forced to relocate to Brooklyn or New Jersey or elsewhere will not be easy, experts say.

"There are a lot of people that won't be ready, willing or able to go back to work in lower Manhattan Monday. They'll go where they can get real estate," said Allegiance Telecom Chief Technology Officer Dana Crowne. "That's going to cause a strain on the infrastructure."

Allegiance Telecom, a Dallas-based competitive local phone company, lost service to 1,100 small and midsized business customers this week when the Manhattan phone-switching office was damaged.

The company is exploring three options for restoring service:

• Allegiance could string fiber-optic lines across New York's vast rivers and waterways to reconnect its relocated customers and ensure they continue to have the same phone numbers. But company executives say that option would be costly and only temporary at best.

• The company is considering using call-forwarding technology to ensure that customers, which may soon be served by switches at a new, distant office location, will have calls to their old phone numbers redirected. This option will ensure that Allegiance's Manhattan-area customers don't miss their important calls, but it would tie up network capacity on two switches--one in Manhattan and one wherever these businesses relocate to. Working around the problem this way would cost Allegiance more money and block more callers from getting through on New York's already jammed phone systems.

• A final option, and one that Allegiance already is testing, entails using so-called local number portability technology. When a resident or business moves across town in the same area code, they frequently can retain the same phone number. But the New York-New Jersey region has several area codes and federally regulated phone calling boundaries. Thus, it will be tricky to ensure that businesses that formerly had phone numbers with Manhattan's well-known 212 area code prefix can maintain those phone numbers even if they temporarily relocate to Queens or Hackensack.

Allegiance is working with local phone giant Verizon; the long-distance phone companies; Neustar, a phone number "portability" administrator; and the Federal Communications Commission to test the option. The FCC has given its initial approval saying, "Do anything you can to help," Crowne said. But Crowne warned that there are many technical hurdles that could thwart this final, most desirable option.

The challenges facing Allegiance are just one example of the issues many communications companies are grappling with. Verizon, for example, is the major local phone company serving the Northeast region of the United States. In a conference call Friday, executives detailed the extent of the damages and their efforts to restore service.

"We have moved thousands of circuits and rerouted much traffic," said Verizon Co-Chief Executive Ivan Seidenberg. "We are stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy."

Seidenberg said that the 911 emergency system has been operating all week. But one of the company's five phone switching stations in the lower Manhattan area--the same one Allegiance uses--has been severely damaged. Others are operating on back-up power generators for now.

Verizon Wireless lost 10 cellular phone antenna towers, though the company has since replaced seven with mobile or temporary towers, he said.

Seidenberg said preliminary estimates indicate Verizon will have substantial network capacity to support the opening of stock market trading on Monday.

Also, long-distance and mobile phone company Sprint said Friday that one of its south Manhattan switching locations continues to face fluctuating power, which has affected service for some voice and data customers. The power fluctuations also caused some Sprint PCS wireless service outages in southern Connecticut, the company said.

Meanwhile, other communications companies are offering free services to New York-area businesses. Yipes Communications, a San Francisco-based provider of high-speed Internet services for business customers, plans to offer three months of free Net access or metropolitan area network connections for Manhattan area businesses forced to relocate.