PORTLAND – A severed fiber optic cable is the most likely cause of a widespread outage that knocked out land-line telephone service to thousands of Maine commercial and residential customers Tuesday evening.

The outage, which began at 4:55 p.m., ended around 6:51 p.m., according to a telephone company spokesman.

The outage affected Time Warner Cable’s digital phone customers in Maine as well as those served by what are called competitive local telephone exchange carriers such as Mid-Maine Communications and Pine Tree Networks.

FairPoint Communications, which provides 550,000 telephone access lines in Maine, was unaffected.

Rob Souza, vice president of operations for OTT Communications in Bangor, said a severed cable most likely caused a switching system malfunction that led to the outage. OTT Communications — which is the parent company of Mid-Maine and Pine Tree and operates the network — is investigating the outage.

When the backup system failed to activate, Time Warner Cable, Mid-Maine Communications and Pine Tree Networks and several other small carriers lost telephone service.

“We basically lost our connection to our signaling hubs. It appears to be a cut cable, but that is just speculation at this point. We’re still not sure how it happened,” Souza said.

The backup system eventually was made operable.

The malfunction prevented customers from making outgoing phone calls and from receiving incoming calls. Customers got a recorded message that said, “We’re sorry, due to heavy calling we can’t complete your call at this time “

Though the service breakdown occurred at the end of the business day, it had a significant impact on the Portland Press Herald’s Portland news operations as its staff was just beginning to gear up for primary election night coverage.

David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the governor’s office keeps an eye on any widespread telecommunications outage because it could have a potential negative impact on emergency dispatch operations as well as hospitals.

Farmer said he was not aware of any problems caused by the outage, which he said affected customers in Bangor, Augusta and the Portland area.

“This was a bad day for this to happen,” Farmer said. “On election day the campaigns are working the phones in an effort to rally the troops to vote.”

Capt. Don Goulet said he was unable to call the non-emergency line at the Cumberland County dispatch center, forcing him to contact the center by radio.

The Westbrook Police Department also lost its non-emergency telephone lines during the outage. Its 911 emergency phone system was not affected.

Peter DeWitt, spokesman for Time Warner, said the company uses Pine Tree Networks’ network to provide digital phone service to more than 100,000 customers in Maine.

“The outage impacted all of our digital phone customers, but to different degrees. Some of the calls were going through,” DeWitt said. “Overall, it was a pretty significant outage.”

As required by law, the Public Utilities Commission was notified of the outage.

Amy Spelke, director of safety and security for the PUC, said OTT Communications is the parent company for a number of small telephone service providers.

“Most of Maine is covered by Fairpoint, but not all of Maine,” Spelke said. “Many of those smaller companies compete in Fairpoint’s territory.”

Spelke said the PUC will conduct a follow-up investigation to determine whether there was any unreasonable utility practice that might have caused the outage.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]