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Sprint service outage strikes KC, two other cities

Updated: 2013-11-15T04:59:40Z

By MARK DAVIS

The Kansas City Star

Mike Wendler slept through an extended Sprint service outage Thursday morning — until his regular old telephone rang.

“A lot of people laugh at me and call me stupid for hanging on to my land line,” the Collinsville, Ill., resident said.

But in this case it came in handy, because his cellphone got caught in the outage that affected thousands of customers’ mobile devices tied to Sprint’s network in the Kansas City, St. Louis and Oklahoma City areas.

It’s not known how many of Sprint’s 54.9 million subscribers are in those markets. Kansas City is a strong market for Sprint, which is based in Overland Park.

The disruption struck in the morning when customers were trying to kickstart their days with school and work calls. Freshly charged batteries didn’t help as service remained fragmented until nearly noon.

A Sprint spokeswoman called the event rare and attributed the disruption to routine maintenance that “obviously went awry.” The outage struck when a software installation on a network switch took parts of the network down, a Sprint statement said.

“Typically we don’t have issues of this magnitude as we do maintenance across the network all the time,” the statement said. “We apologize for any inconvenience experienced by our customers.”

Sprint said Thursday that it was still checking whether 911 calls had worked during the outage, though it turned on roaming services so phones capable of reaching other networks could.

Thursday’s disruption was the latest reminder of how dependent we’ve bcome on technology. And it added cell phones to the long list of life’s frustrating tech-related snafus, from the Nasdaq stock market’s three-hour outage in August to the recent disastrous launch of the Affordable Care Act’s Internet health insurance exchanges.

Generally, the wireless companies “do a pretty good job,” industry analyst Jeff Silva said. “But because (a disruption) is so pronounced when it does happen, those events become bigger than life for the people affected by them.”

Sprint customers began to notice the outage with their morning coffee. By 6 a.m., complaint posts were clogging Sprint’s Facebook page. Sprint employees asked posters about what was going on, or promised them fixes.

For many, the outage meant an uncomfortable isolation.

“This means my daughter, her school, my husband and my work cannot get hold of me and I cannot get hold of them,” one customer posted on Sprint’s Facebook page.

Jeanne Norris, another cut-off customer, used Sprint’s page to report service was down totally: “Now I’m home sick and have no way for my kid’s school to contact me.”

And as it turned out, Norris said later, her son, Silas, did get sick at school.

Shannon Kelso was trying to patch into some early morning work meetings from home Thursday. Her Internet service got her partly plugged in.

“Unfortunately I missed the phone portion of the meetings because service was down, and like many other people I don’t have a land line any longer,” she said.

At least a couple of Sprint customers also complained that their SureWest Internet connections were out at the same time.

“Started to have a ‘no phone’ panic attack!!!” one posted on The Kansas City Star’s Facebook page.

The events were unrelated, but routine maintenance had triggered both.

SureWest’s work had knocked out Internet service for 130 residential and business customers in the Kansas City area, spokeswoman Laura Zuhone said. SureWest offers Internet, cable TV and phone service in parts of the metro area.

The Sprint outage made Waukesha Carter late for her job at an auto dealership in Olathe.

“It didn’t do anything,” Carter said of her Sprint phone. “I was trying to make sure I had phone service before I left.”

Her two girls already were at school, and a dead cellphone meant mom wouldn’t be able to reach them after school, or vice versa. She reached customer service on her land line phone, and a Sprint customer rep, supervisor and technician managed to restore her service.

Wendler, the late sleeper, had less luck with his land line. He’d missed the call but saw it was his close friend Kerri Kelly, who works as a nurse.

When he tried back, he couldn’t get through on her Sprint phone. He tried texting but that didn’t work from his Sprint phone — even when he stepped outside his house in search of a stronger signal.

He began to wonder whether she needed help.

Kelly said she had been near panic over lost cellular service as she drove through a rough neighborhood in East St. Louis.

Finally, she reached her husband’s work phone from Verizon by using FriendCaller Pro, an Internet phone app on her iPad.

“I don’t like to be left without electronics,” Kelly said. “My iPad doesn’t leave my side when I’m not at work.”

Sprint’s outage is likely to require a report to the National Outage Reporting System, which is run by the Federal Communications Commission. Reports, however, remain confidential as the FCC uses them to track trends, look for weaknesses and bolster the nation’s telecommunications system.

Wireless and regular phone companies, to try to avoid the kind of disruption that Sprint suffered Thursday, operate redundant systems that can take over for a disrupted section in a pinch.

But such duplication costs money.

“It’s always a big balance between the appropriate amount of redundancy and the added costs to the network,” said Pat Schwinghammer, an industry consultant and wireless engineer who previously worked for Sprint.

Schwinghammer said he’s amazed that wireless networks are so reliable, given how much more complex they’ve become. Outages are disruptive only because these networks have become so reliable that, well, we rely on them.

“When it does happen it’s far more important than it was in the past,” Schwinghammer said.

To reach Mark Davis, call 816-234-4372 or send email to mdavis@kcstar.com.

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