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E-Mail Delays Plague Verizon Users


December 9, 2000

Hundreds of thousands of customers from Washington to Boston have suffered intermittent delays in sending and receiving e-mail this week due to widespread network problems afflicting Verizon Communications, the telecommunications company said last night.

Verizon attributed the problems to a flood of "spam"--junk e-mail sent in bulk--that overloaded its computer servers in Reston on Tuesday and substantially clogged the network.

"It was tens of millions of messages," said Verizon spokesman Larry Plumb. "We're confident it's malicious because of the sheer size." Verizon is the new name for the old Bell Atlantic, now combined with GTE Corp.

Verizon said it successfully choked off the flood of messages within 24 hours, but a massive backlog of e-mail still coursing through its systems yesterday continued to overload the network, resulting in ongoing delivery delay. The company said it has deployed security equipment and software to filter out the spam, as well as extra servers to expand capacity and restore service for many. Verizon said it hoped to completely eradicate the trouble over the weekend.

The company said it had yet to identify the source of the spam, although it has determined it originated from an Internet service provider that Verizon did not identify. Company officials likened the flood of spam to concerted "denial of service" attacks that have been aimed at popular Web sites, crashing them by unleashing an avalanche of electronic visitors all at once. Verizon said its internal security is continuing to investigate the episode in pursuit of a culprit and plans to take the matter to law enforcement authorities.

Verizon's troubles with the Internet have already become legion in the telecommunications world. Its high-speed service--which relies on DSL, or digital subscriber line, a technology that uses telephone lines--has been bedeviled by a host of installation foul-ups. For customers who have navigated "DSL Hell" to finally gain working links to Verizon's service, the onset of e-mail trouble brought another round of grief.

"Here we have a company that says they're going to be the future of the Internet and they can't even handle e-mail," said Andrew Leyden, chief executive of an Internet start-up that uses Verizon's DSL service. "You'd think if they're going be the future, they'd at least know how to work the past."

Leyden said his DSL service took a month and three visits from technicians to get working. For the last week, his e-mail has taken as long as three days to reach him. "Apparently, there's no end in sight," he said.

Verizon has long acknowledged difficulties with DSL, though it has lately said those days are largely behind it.

"We've had some real problems with DSL," said Tom Tauke, Verizon's senior vice president, speaking yesterday at a conference in Washington. "But service has improved dramatically."

This week's e-mail gridlock inflicted delay on more than Verizon's DSL subscribers. At the height of the trouble on Tuesday, more than 200,000 business and residential customers were affected--those from Virginia to Maine, who sit within Bell Atlantic's old territory, the company said.

Yesterday evening, only one of those customers had been fully rescued: The Washington Post. After the newspaper's technical staff complained of e-mail troubles earlier in the week, Verizon transferred the traffic to its servers in Dallas, according to Plumb, the Verizon spokesman.

Asked whether Verizon fully restored the newspaper's e-mail in an effort to prevent word of its troubles from circulating, Plumb said: "It's a fair question. It's a commercial account. They had the ability to solve the commercial account problem. We're not disguising this problem."

Added another spokesman, Eric Rabe: "We would have done this for any other large customer--you guys are one of the largest ones we have. We didn't volunteer to do this for the world."

Several customers complained that they were left uninformed for days about the source of the troubles with their e-mail.

"Verizon is not letting users know what's going on," complained Bob Hirschfeld, a technology satirist who works out of his Takoma Park home. "Their 800 number says some customers may be experiencing problems sending or receiving, and nothing more than that. Their Web site says nothing. It's a widespread problem and they're not letting customers know what's going on."

Hirschfeld said he finally reached a customer-service operator yesterday--after remaining on hold for 45 minutes--who told him that Verizon has over-marketed its service and lacks the capacity to handle all the customers.

Verizon officials flatly denied that characterization. "You don't build a system to accommodate an unanticipated influx of tens of millions of messages," Rabe said. "That would be a terribly inefficient design of the system--nobody does that. You build for a reasonable capacity above normal."

Peter S. Goodman, Washington Post


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