How to tell if your phone line trouble is in the house or in the network.

The divestiture of the phone network [Ma Bell] which occurred in 1984 has had profound ramifications on our communication networks, mostly for the good in retrospect, but also complicating. We not only have voice networks, but now “data” networks riding these wires. And we have more ways of getting communications, viz cable networks, satellite networks, wireless [Amps, 2G, 3G, 4G etc]. This is the Information age, ne the communications age.

The “phone line” which still comes into most of our houses [whether or not we use it!] via the outside wire, and is CONTINUED inside the house in possibly complicated ways is no longer solely [as of 1984] the property of the phone network – i.e. ATT, or “Ma Bell.” Only older people may remember what “Ma Bell” was! That phone line must now be SEPARATED into inside and outside portions, or “that owned by the phone company” and “that owned by the homeowner.”

The “phone company” only maintains and provisions that portion “owned by the phone company” – it no longer maintains and provisions “that owned by the homeowner.” You, the owner are now RESPONSIBLE for “that owned by the homeowner.” That means wiring/maintenance/payments, etc.

To meet this challenge, the “phone company” started installing a BOX which defined the boundary between the “phone company – now called NETWORK” and the homeowner. This BOX is called the “Network Interface Device [sic!?]” or “NID.” You will normally find it on any house appliqued to the outside. [I will try to find a picture of it]. If you open this box, which you are allowed to do! - you will find a telephone cable [the skinny flat cable you find in your house. There may in fact be TWO of them if you have two phone lines in your house]. If you unplug this cable, and stare at the little phone plug [officially called an “RJ11” - looks like the ethernet plug which probably plugs into your PC, but a little smaller], you are staring at YOUR HOUSE WIRING. The jack – where you unplugged the plug is the NETWORK. Try to visualize the electrons providing your voice/data service!

If you have an old fashioned phone which gets battery from the NETWORK, you can plug this phone in this NETWORK jack and you should get a dial tone! [you can still find these things at thrift stores, and you should BUY one so you will have phone service during an outage [if you don't have a cell phone]]. This means that the NETWORK is functioning. If you do not have an old fashioned phone, you will have to take your phone and its AC power source to power your phone of course. BEWARE this only applies if you have “dial tone” service, which means you can [or at least you could before you had this problem....] make a phone call on it. In this day and age, you can have a phone line WITHOUT dial tone service just to carry your ADSL signal. If this is the case, you will have to carry your ADSL modem outside and plug it into this line and see if the “SYNC” light comes on your modem [of course you will have to take an extension cord for power for the ADSL modem]. “ADSL” is of course a generic term meaning how the phone company provides INTERNET service to you over your phone line. You normally have an “ADSL modem” connected to your phone line [along with your analog phone if you have dial tone service].

If you connect the phone [or the ADSL modem] to the NETWORK jack and you do not have a dial tone [or you do not get ADSL sync], the problem is with the phone company. You should call them and tell them they have a problem. To show them how smart you are, you can tell them “I disconnected the NETWORK at the NID and plugged in a phone [or ADSL modem] and I do not get service.” They will be very amazed, and appreciative, and SUPPORTIVE, because here is a customer who knows what he is talking about! They will know exactly what to do [dispatch a telephone tech to fix it] and will not have to do anything else, like pester you to death trying to understand whether the problem is theirs or YOURS. If the problem is YOURS of course, and they find this out after the fact, they can now charge you for the service call, and even for fixing your HOMEOWNER wires. Sometimes they are understanding, other times they are NOT! In this day and age, of course, it could be a day or so until this is fixed. In the OLD days, this was a life and death matter [this was a lifeline in those days] and a tech would fix it pretty pronto! Today of course, the wireless cell phone is more of a lifeline than the analog phone line is. The penetration of cell phones may be greater than analog phone lines in fact! Just be sure to keep your cell phone CHARGED!!

If you DO get a dial tone, or SYNC with your ADSL modem, you then have a real problem :-) The problem is in the HOMEOWNERs house wiring. How you fix this depends on a lot of things. It could get very complicated. But it is YOUR responsibility in general. Sometimes the phone company has a thing called “inside wire maintenance” on your phone bill. In past times, they “sneaked” these on your phone bills. Actually “sneaked” may be too accusative. In the old days, it was thought of as a way to continue the support of the homeowner INTO his house. Most people of course had NO IDEA what was going on in the early days [well, even to this day, yes...?] and all they knew was that “the phone didn't work.” If the phone company patiently tried to explain to the homeowner how it was HIS responsibility you can see all kinds of problems cropping up here.

So you should check your phone bill for this item. If you DO have “inside wire maintenance” then you can actually ask the phone company to fix this problem. THIS IS THE WORST POSSIBLE NIGHTMARE for the phone company. They do not want to be climbing around in your house trying to find some problem. Believe me.... I believe the phone companies are actually removing the “inside wire maintenance” from bills in this day and age. You cannot believe the complexity/rats nest of some inside wiring! Homeowners do not have to particularly follow codes, rules, or common sense when wiring their houses! And they DON'T!

I really have little guidance if you find the problem is in your house. Did you change anything recently? Try disconnecting everything one at a time connected to the phone line in your house until it starts working. This is actually a pretty good technique. The last thing you disconnected was the culprit. If you have disconnected everything but ONE thing and it still doesn't work, swap out the ONE thing [hopefully an old style telephone]. If it STILL doesn't work, I suspect lightning got to your phone line. You have a real problem. Go around to each phone line terminal in the house and try disconnecting the wires INSIDE the terminal and repeat the procedure.

If none of this works, you probably have a wire fried by the lightning. Find where the phone line enters your house and start following the wires. If you know how to use an ohmmeter it will be very helpful. Much more helpful will be a buzzer which you can buy to connect at the entrance to your house. This will inject an audio tone onto your phone line. You can then go around the house and follow this tone. Where the tone is missing is the section with the problem. If the tone is not present at all, you may have a hard short between the wires or a short or open from one wire or the other, possibly to ground.

OR you may want to call an electrician, or of course the phone company to fix the problem. They of course will charge you time and materials... In this day and age that is VERY scary. When was the last time you had a plumber or an electrician in your house – or an appliance repairman? If you are like me, you have become mostly self sustaining. Good luck in any case!