U.S. judge clears way for work on outages


WASHINGTON -- A federal judge said yesterday the "Baby Bells" do not need court permission to work with a hardware manufacturer to fix whatever caused the recent phone outages, effectively derailing a Bell plan to get some political mileage out of their recent troubles.

U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene said that Bell Atlantic Corp. and Pacific Bell do not need special court permission to work with DSC Communications Corp. to find out what caused their phone systems to crash recently. Equipment sold by DSC to Bell Atlantic and Pacific Bell has been implicated in a half-dozen phone outages and near-outages over the past two weeks.

Judge Greene made his pronouncement in response to a request from Bell Atlantic, which had asked the court for an emergency exemption from the manufacturing ban on all seven regional Bell phone companies.

That ban, imposed in 1984 as part of the divestiture agreement that created the Baby Bells, prevents them from engaging in the design and development of telecommunications hardware and software that is integral to its operation.

On Tuesday, a Bell Atlantic executive told a House panel the manufacturing ban was impeding his company's efforts to find and fix the cause of the outage. A dramatic high point in the hearing came when he announced that Bell Atlantic had been forced to ask the court for a special waiver so it could get to the bottom of the problem quickly.

As it turned out, Bell Atlantic didn't need the waiver.

"Why are you here?" Judge Greene demanded of an attorney for Bell Atlantic who showed up to argue for the waiver.

Judge Greene, who has overseen the Bells' since the breakup, said that he didn't know why the Bells felt they needed court permission to work with DSC to fix the outage problem. Under sharp questioning from the judge, the Bell Atlantic attorney said that the company didn't really think it needed one, either, but it felt compelled to get approval from the court anyway.

That didn't take long.

"Go ahead and fix this as quickly as you can," Judge Greene said.

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