AT&T system failure knocks out wireless service for thousands of customers nationwide

An AT&T retail location is shown in Willow Grove, Pa., on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, a day in which a number of Americans dealt with cellular outages. AT&T customers in Arkansas and elsewhere lost their cellphone service, according to data from Downdetector. Customers using Cricket Wireless, Verizon, T-Mobile and other companies also reported outages, but AT&T was the hardest hit. (AP/Matt Rourke)
An AT&T retail location is shown in Willow Grove, Pa., on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, a day in which a number of Americans dealt with cellular outages. AT&T customers in Arkansas and elsewhere lost their cellphone service, according to data from Downdetector. Customers using Cricket Wireless, Verizon, T-Mobile and other companies also reported outages, but AT&T was the hardest hit. (AP/Matt Rourke)

AT&T scrambled Thursday to restore its wireless network to hundreds of thousands of customers in the United States after a system failure knocked out cellphone service.

A system tracker called Downdetector said that AT&T’s phone malfunction peaked about 2:30 a.m. with 73,000 “incidents” being reported. Overall, Downdetector recorded 1.5 million reports of lost service.

By late afternoon, the reports were down to about 1,200.

“We have restored wireless service to all our affected customers,” Kim Hart, a company spokesperson, said in a statement Thursday. “We sincerely apologize to them. Keeping our customers connected remains our top priority, and we are taking steps to ensure our customers do not experience this again in the future.” AT&T is the nation’s largest carrier, with more than 240 million subscribers.

Subscribers of Cricket Wireless, which is owned by AT&T, reported that they couldn’t make calls, as did users of other carriers, including Verizon and T-Mobile. Spokespeople for those companies said their networks were operating normally and the problems were likely stemming from customers trying to connect to AT&T users.

Some iPhone users saw SOS messages displayed in the status bar on their cellphones. The message indicates that the device is having trouble connecting to their cellular provider’s network, but it can make emergency calls through other carrier networks, according to Apple Support.

AT&T blamed the incident on an error in coding, without elaborating.

“Based on our initial review, we believe that today’s outage was caused by the application and execution of an incorrect process used as we were expanding our network, not a cyber attack,” the Dallas-based company said.

Lee McKnight, an associate professor in the iSchool at Syracuse University, cited the most likely cause of the glitch as a cloud misconfiguration, or human error.

“A possible but far less likely outcome is an intentional malicious hack of AT&T’s network, but the diffuse pattern of outages across the country suggests something more fundamental,” McKnight said in an emailed statement.

The Federal Communications Commission contacted AT&T about the disruption and the Department of Homeland Security and FBI were also looking into it, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.

The FBI acknowledged it had been in touch with AT&T. “Should we learn of any malicious activity we will respond accordingly,” the agency said.

The failure also raised concerns on Capitol Hill.

“We are working to assess today’s disruption in order to gain a complete understanding of what went wrong and what can be done to prevent future incidents like this from occurring,” said a statement issued by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Ohio Republican Bob Latta, chair of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

A lack of cellphone connections forced some local governments to set up alternate systems for accessing emergency services.

The city of Little Rock sent out a news release at 8:40 a.m. and North Little Rock Police did the same about 20 minutes later, warning that people calling 911 on mobile phones from either side of the river “may experience connectivity problems and delays when attempting to reach emergency services.” Businesses reported communications disruptions in the morning. Korey Hendrix, a Little Rock real estate agent, said he heavily relies on his phone for day-to-day tasks.

“It’s been very difficult to function,” he said. “Especially making calls to businesses or people who may not have iMessage or Wi-Fi calling enabled.” Internet data allowed some operations to continue, making the cell service failure more of an annoyance than a catastrophe for some.

A representative from Little Rock’s Park West Pharmacy said its landlines were working and that customers were communicating via text and the pharmacy’s mobile app. Mel Fortson, a licensed nail tech with a studio in Jonesboro, said one of her clients rescheduled an appointment over Instagram because her cell service was affected.

“I guess this outage was a bigger deal than I realized,” said Jess Mylonas, a hairstylist and co-owner of the Cocoon Collaborative salon in Little Rock. “I had Wi-Fi at home this morning when I had no cell service. The only ‘inconvenience’ (not actually an inconvenience at all) was that I wasn’t able to listen to Spotify for the first three minutes of my commute to work.” Throughout the day, other cities urged residents to find alternate ways of reaching emergency or municipal services, like landlines or phones connected to Wi-Fi. The city of Upper Arlington, Ohio, said the Fire Department might not be notified of fire alarms because of the AT&T failure. It urged that any fire alarm be followed up with a 911 call.

The San Francisco Fire Department said on social media that it was aware of an issue affecting AT&T users who were trying to call

911. “We are actively engaged and monitoring this,” the Fire Department said. “If you are an AT&T customer and cannot get through to 911, then please try calling from a landline.” The Massachusetts State Police said on social media Thursday morning that 911 call centers across the state had been flooded with calls from people checking to see if the emergency service worked from their phones. “Please do not do this,” the police said.

“If you can successfully place a non-emergency call to another number via your cell service then your 911 service will also work.” Even in less extreme circumstances, the system collapse complicated the many elements of life that have come to depend on a reliable connection to the internet.

Staff at the First Watch restaurant in Dania Beach, Fla., had to turn away breakfast customers for a time while the failure prevented them from processing payments.

Debra Maddow, who lives in southwest Houston, said that she first noticed something was off when she went to check traffic Thursday morning and Google Maps was offline. Later, she visited a Starbucks to make an urgent call through its free Wi-Fi, she said.

“I’m really frustrated that they’re not telling us anything,” 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.

It’s not the first time AT&T has suffered a widespread service drop. In 2008, the company dealt with an extensive wireless internet failure in the U.S. Northeast. In that incident, a glitch in the way the company’s network was routing traffic was identified as the culprit and the service failure was relatively short-lived. In 2020, AT&T internet and phone service was knocked out in Nashville by an explosion in the city’s downtown area.

T-Mobile also has been hit with widespread system failures, including one last February and another in 2020 that prompted the FCC to investigate.

“In my experience, this type of outage can negatively impact financial results in the quarter in which it occurs and cause short-term lost goodwill with customers,” David Heger, an analyst at Edward D. Jones & Co., said in an email. “However, it does not have a longer term impact on the business.”

Information for this article was contributed by Michelle Chapman, Zeke Miller, Lindsay Whitehurst and Seung Min Kim of The Associated Press; Aaron Gettinger of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; Jenny Gross and David McCabe of The New York Times; and Jillian Deutsch,Todd Shields, Jake Bleiberg and Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg News.

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