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How Reliable Is Your Cell Phone Service?

Communications hiccup causes a stir.

Nearly two million cell phone users got a figurative wake-up call yesterday morning, February 22, when they tried to use their devices only to find no service. AT&T customers were hit the hardest, with more than 1.7 million affected, but there were also minor scattered outages reported by T-MOBILE and Verizon users. But for AT&T – with an estimated 91 million customers – it was a nationwide service interruption.

The company claims the disruption was caused by an error made while expanding the network, and not a cyberattack. However, AT&T spokesman Jim Greer said they would “continue to assess the outage,” and the FBI, DHS, and FCC all plan to investigate. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are left wondering about the reliability of their communications service provider.

The unexplained outages also affected home phones and internet connections, with those in the south and southeast parts of the US experiencing the most service interruptions. Early yesterday, the AT&T website carried the following nebulous message: “Some of our customers are experiencing wireless service interruptions this morning. We are working urgently to restore service to them. We encourage the use of Wi-Fi calling until service is restored.”

Downdetector, a website that monitors internet outages, began receiving interruption of service reports around 3:30 a.m. Eastern on Thursday. By 9 a.m., more than 74,000 customers reported problems, which included an inability to call 911 for some cell phone users. Another 13,000 people using the AT&T subsidiary, Cricket Wireless, also reported problems, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Cell Phone Customers React

The reaction from consumers who lost service ranged from cynical to conspiratorial. “Don’t panic people. It’s just China doing a test run,” one commenter wrote on Fox Digital. Another countered, “Dry run for the massive communications blackouts to come. Be ready for more as the election draws near and chaos escalates.” It didn’t take long for the comments to turn political. Someone using the handle Undecided 2024 didn’t sound terribly undecided: “How sad and pathetic of an existence must you have to live in such fear and conspiracy theories full of lies and scare tactics. But then again, you guys support the biggest fraud of all so it makes sense.”

Before true panic set in, AT&T was able to right the listing ship and began to restore service. By 11 a.m., several news outlets reported that three-quarters of the network was running again. But those who were affected remained unnerved by the lack of answers. The New York Times quoted Houston resident Debra Maddow:

“‘I’m really frustrated that they’re not telling us anything,’ Ms. Maddow said in a phone interview over Wi-Fi. She said she tried to call AT&T for an update, but after a long time on hold, the call was dropped.”

Is there anything more frustrating than waiting on hold for a long time and then having your call dropped? And when it concerns a cell phone – which have practically become arm appendages for most Americans – customers have a short fuse. Tony from Wilmington, DE, sounded like one such unhappy AT&T camper in the comments section of the NYT: “I’m [a]customer for more than 10 years, but I guess it’s time to move to another service if they could not give an appropriate reason, given the fact that they already lied about impact areas.”

Restoring service quickly is priority one for a company whose service has gone sideways, but for many, that doesn’t seem to be enough: People want answers.

Read More From Leesa K. Donner

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