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Friday, June 28, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Q & A: Breakdown unlikely on Internet highway

Seattle Times technology reporter

Telecommunications giant WorldCom is in trouble. How will you be affected? Here's what we learned from industry observers.

Q: What does WorldCom have to do with my Internet service?

A: WorldCom owns UUNet, which provides products and services that enable consumers to access the Internet. WorldCom may affect your Internet service because it's a big player. By some estimates, 70 percent of Net traffic goes over a WorldCom network.

Q: What if I don't use UUNet?

A: If you have Internet service at home, your Internet service provider most likely uses WorldCom's network to provide you with an Internet connection.

Think of the WorldCom network as an interstate highway system and your local ISP as an onramp. If WorldCom is Interstate 5, your ISP is the Mercer Street onramp.

Q: Am I vulnerable?

A: It depends. An ISP buys a big pipe from network service providers such as UUNet (WorldCom's network), Cable & Wireless and Sprint, and sells you a smaller pipe to access the Internet. Most ISPs (onramps), however, don't deal with just one network service provider (highway).

For instance, Seattle-based InterNap, which provides high-speed Internet service to businesses, works with eight different network services providers, including UUNet, to deliver service to its customers. That's a lot of highway.

Q: Who is vulnerable?

A: Small businesses may be the most vulnerable, especially if they rely solely on UUNet for Internet service. But even under a doomsday scenario, "the Internet would not come to a screeching halt," said Jared Reimer, vice president of operations for The River, an ISP for Western Washington and Arizona. "The whole bankruptcy is going to take months and months and months."

Q: How should I prepare?

A: The first step would be to ask your ISP to spell out its contingency plan. If you're not satisfied, shop around for either a new or a backup service. If you're a business, it usually takes 30 to 45 days to set up a new service. Plan accordingly.

Q: How about long distance?

A: MCI, which is owned by WorldCom, mostly provides long-distance service to larger businesses in the area. However, it also sells to smaller businesses through wholesale vendors.

By one estimate, MCI carries between 30 to 40 percent of the local long-distance traffic for businesses.

Q: Will chaos ensue?

A: John Hronek, president of technology-consulting company Tellink Integration Systems, said wholesale vendors would move away from MCI immediately if they believed their ability to deliver long-distance was in jeopardy.

"It is my personal belief that nobody will miss a telephone call or lose any data associated with this change in service," he said. "That said: What's going to happen when you drop 17,000 people out of your support organization? Degradation of service, response time and reliability."

Q: What kind of physical presence does WorldCom have in Washington state?

A: WorldCom has the fourth-largest phone infrastructure in the state in terms of value, behind Qwest, Verizon and AT&T. For the 2001 tax year, its total assets in the state were assessed at $237 million. The assets here are mostly lines, switches and other network equipment in 34 of the state's 39 counties.

Q: How about here?

A: About half of WorldCom's assets are in King County, including $123 million worth of equipment and lines, and a network facility completed last year in Kent. WorldCom bought the 14-acre site from Boeing in 1999 for $4.8 million. With the buildings and equipment complete, the complex is now assessed at $10.6 million.

Q: What's happening with local WorldCom employees?

A: The company has about 300 workers in Washington, mostly in Bellevue, Kent, Seattle, Vancouver and Yacolt, Clark County. Although the company announced said it would lay off 17,000 people, the impact on Washington workers should be minimal, according to a company source who wished not to be named.

Seattle Times business reporters Brier Dudley and Nancy Gohring contributed to this report. Monica Soto can be reached at 206-515-5632 or msoto@seattletimes.com.

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