Phantom phone line stymies network sleuth

Faulty phone setup leads tech pro into maze of state and federal regulations -- and confirms the importance of small details

Of course, it's important to double-check every part of a setup to make sure it all works as expected. But if these extra steps can help keep you avoid red tape and finger-pointing, then go the extra mile. The time and frustration you save will be your own, as I learned the hard way.

Several years ago, we were upgrading the Internet service at a remote site. Cost was an issue, so we implemented a solution that we'd successfully executed at other locations.

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An additional POTS line would be delivered on a standard copper line. The DSL signal would be transmitted on the same line and picked off by the equipment to provide high-speed Internet service for the PCs. With the proper filters installed, neither signal should interfere with the other.

We had no need for a single phone line there, as we had a PBX already installed. But the arrangement still helped the bottom line, so we let the line hang in the basement, not connected to any phones. This setup had worked well at our other locations, so I didn't take the time to verify the phone line was set up correctly. After all, we weren't going to use it.

The system worked flawlessly for almost a year until one day the office administrator at that location called me about the bill for the line. It was normally in the $30 range with the DSL charge remaining constant, but this month there were toll charges for both out-of-state and international calls.

I pulled the bills for the past six months to see what was going on. There were no irregularities until the prior two months. The first month's bill listed a few unexplained calls, then the calls blossomed the next month.

I called the number for that line, which had been left dead-ended in the basement. When it rang, I asked to speak with the office administrator by name. "No one here by that name," came the reply. I specifically asked for the manager, and this resulted in an immediate hang-up.

I hadn't recognized the voice, though I regularly talked to the people at that supposed location. I figured that somehow the phone line was connected in a locale other than the remote office. I thought it would be simple to verify and an easy fix for the phone company. Wrong!

I called the phone company, but the rep said it had to be someone in my building answering -- which I was very sure it was not. I said I believed that the phone side of the copper line was connected elsewhere in the city. The phone company assured me that was impossible and the line checked clear from its tests.

I asked the phone company to verify the physical location of the actual drop for the line, but the rep refused, insisting the tests showed the line to be fine and blaming any problems on the DSL provider. The DSL vendor also claimed immunity, stating it only used the copper line the phone company had provided.

Now I was between a rock and a hard spot as the two accused each other, with neither doing anything to investigate the problem and instead passing me to higher-ups. To further aggravate the situation, the phone lines were governed by the state PUC, while the Internet was governed by the FCC. Neither of these agencies knows the meaning of the word "speed."

I began filing complaints with both agencies and contacted state and federal congressmen. I was flabbergasted that I could identify an easily verifiable problem, yet all institutions refused to help and kept blaming the other party. I remained enough of a pain that I was able to finally get to the bottom of the situation.

What happened was that the copper POTS number had been installed in an apartment building, and it wasn't disconnected when the prior tenants moved out. When we received the line, the phone system "reactivated" that number and the apartment building number functioned as an extension on the line. The apartment remained empty for months and we didn't use that phone line, so the oversight went unnoticed for a while. What I'd been repeatedly told was "impossible" was, indeed, "possible." However, it took the phone company almost three weeks to resolve this nightmare and reimburse us for the back charges.

Now I'm even more vigilant about double-checking everything -- and never, ever assume something will work as expected even if it's been fine in the past. I always go on site after any install, plug a cheap phone into the system, and call my cellphone to verify proper porting of any number. I also make sure I have the number contracted and not take the phone company's word for it.

I learned it seems that the larger the institutions involved, the more they seem to be able to shrug off responsibility. Hopefully, I won't have to deal with any for a long time.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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