AT&T users ring up gripes about service

When federal users of AT&T's FTS 2000 long-distance network service meet at a users' conference in San Francisco next week many will bring with them complaints that the government's leading telecommunications vendor cannot provide adequate service is unresponsive to customer service demands and is repeatedly delinquent in hitting deadlines.

"The users' forum in San Francisco is going to be rough " said one General Services Administration official who requested anonymity. The official said GSA's Federal Telecommunications Service has heard complaints about AT&T's performance this year from the Treasury and Veterans Affairs departments the Federal Aviation Administration and the Social Security Administration.

Frank Lalley associate deputy assistant secretary for telecommunications at the VA and chairman of the Interagency Management Council said federal telecom executives have brought some extremely "emotional" complaints to interagency meetings this year. He said the council has not yet taken action. "We decided the best thing to do was to raise the issues at the users' forum."

Most of the problems agencies are experiencing are not related to AT&T's specific telecom services but deal with the process of obtaining them sources said. "I think the problem is more one of provisioning billing and coordinating the installation of circuits " said Jim Jones executive assistant to FTS commissioner Bob Woods. "Once the service is in and the first bill is rendered things are pretty good."

That has not offered much comfort to federal users who believe that AT&T's performance has impeded their ability to fulfill their agencies' missions. Ronald Sidis video and telemedicine coordinator at the VA Medical Center in Portland Ore. said AT&T was unable to provide the T-1 lines he needed to set up a videoconferencing network between medical facilities within the necessary time frame. He said he eventually obtained a waiver from GSA to buy the service from Sprint the other FTS 2000 vendor which has about 20 percent of the government's FTS 2000 business.

"I was able to get things at a much faster rate from Sprint " Sidis said. But Sidis said AT&T personnel have refused to cooperate with Sprint to provide the interoperability data needed to allow Sidis' videoconferencing sites to communicate with other VA sites that use AT&T video services. Consequently Sidis cannot dial directly to most other VA video sites and has to go through a gateway installed at the VA central office in Martinsburg W.Va.

Sidis said AT&T personnel refused to work out an interoperability agreement with Sprint claiming such an arrangement would create billing problems. "If someone as large as AT&T doesn't know how to do billing there's a problem " Sidis said.

Telecom managers at the FAA also said they were having repeated problems obtaining circuits from AT&T. They declined to talk about the problems but a GSA official said the FAA barred AT&T personnel from meetings due to their frustration with the company's unresponsiveness.

SSA also ran into problems last year when it tried to install a new menu-driven system on its toll-free service line. The system had trouble handling the "enormous number of calls " said Tom O'Hare SSA's associate commissioner for telecommunications and systems operations. "But we've worked our way through that and on balance we give AT&T relatively good marks."

John Doherty AT&T's vice president for FTS 2000 and civilian markets said the problems experienced by his company on FTS 2000 grew out of the unforeseen difficulties encountered when his company moved Treasury from Sprint to AT&T last year. Although GSA estimated the transition would be completed in six months the complexities of the procedure caused it to drag on for more than a year. Some of Treasury's data services still have not been moved to AT&T's network.

Doherty said AT&T was under extreme pressure to change the services at the Internal Revenue Service before tax season late last year. Because the company did not foresee how long it would take it did not beef up its resources to meet the demand from other agencies that occurs at the end of the fiscal year Doherty said.

"Between the [Treasury] business and responding to all of our other customers we found ourselves in a situation where we weren't able to meet the dates that AT&T customers had become accustomed to " he said. "We got to a point where we were really crunched."

Doherty said that with the Treasury transition nearly complete the problems are now history. "I think a lot of learning has been achieved " he said.

Jim Payne Sprint's assistant vice president for FTS 2000 said GSA should allow dissatisfied AT&T customers to switch carriers. "Both AT&T's and Sprint's customers should be free to vote with their feet " he said.

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