AT&T outage: Service restored to thousands of customers after hours of frustration

Hours after AT&T cell phone users across the U.S. reported outages, customers have finally had their wireless service restored.

AT&T is the nation’s largest wireless provider. They now say the issue has been resolved and they are taking steps to ensure this widespread outage never happens again.

"We have restored wireless service to all our affected customers," the company said in a statement around 3:30 p.m. "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 its peak, more than 70,000 customers across the U.S. were impacted by outages across AT&T’s network Thursday morning, according to Downdetector, which tracks data on disruptions to internet and cellular services.

The outages began around 3:30 a.m. ET, according to a graph shown on the website that tracks outages. 

Downdetector also showed a spike in reported T-Mobile outages around 4:00 a.m. Even employees at FOX 5 in Bethesda reported not being able to use their devices for calls, texts or to connect to Wi-Fi and the app was also reportedly having issues.

When the outages began, AT&T released the following statement: "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."

The outage brought up serious concerns about public safety and emergency responses. Usage of landlines in American homes has steadily decreased over the past several years. The latest estimate shows nearly 73% of adults lived in households that did not have a landline telephone but did have at least one wireless phone. The percentages of adults and children living in wireless-only households have been generally increasing since 2003, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Both tech experts and first responders say this should serve as a cautionary tale about staying prepared.

"That used to be the backup plan, was the landline. Now the backup plan may be some kind of Wi-Fi-based calling capabilities, so you can reach each other," said Pete Erickson, founder of Modev, a northern Virginia-based company that is considered an ecosystem builder in tech space and heavily involved in the AI industry.

The 911 Call Center in Montgomery County said the reported outage Thursday also impacted FirstNet, which is used by first responders. In the event of an emergency, people were urged to contact 911 through a landline or use "Text to 911".

Cassandra Onley, director of Montgomery 911, said this was a reminder of why it’s important to have a plan in the event of an emergency. In some cases, AT&T users reported their iPhones were stuck on "SOS" mode, signaling a connection is poor and only emergency calls or texts can be completed.

"All agencies in Maryland are text-enabled which means you can text in Maryland. I also know other jurisdictions have text capabilities. So, even though you may not have a voice path, you may be able to have that text path," Onley said. "This is somewhere you need to think if your cell phone does not work, what would you do? So whether it’s go to a friend or use another carrier, if it’s a specific carrier that’s not working. Or go to a public safety facility whether it be a fire station or police station."

According to Onley, 82% of calls received by the county’s 911 center are made by cell phone users.

Though it did not state the exact cause of the outage, Erickson said it was likely a technical glitch, adding that the outage had a "cascading effect." 

"The technical term is called "peering", so these networks couldn’t peer together. So, they basically became all jumbled up. The traffic that goes from our phones to a tower and to other folks, it just stopped," Erickson said. "Very rare on a national scale. It happens all the time, you know…nodes go down on networks all the time…you probably experienced that where we might be home and all of a sudden, wow…my phone network isn’t working very well."

Though other rival providers such as T-Mobile, Verizon, and other carriers did not report widespread outages, some customers reported problems getting in touch with other AT&T users.

"It’s frustrating as someone who actually pays their bills," one person told FOX 5. "My service is a little bit slow, but I’m still able to make calls. It’s just as fast or effective how it’s supposed to be."

Here's what else we know about the outage: 

AT&T phone outage

DownDetector.com, an outage tracking site, showed thousands of outages reported starting around 4 a.m. ET, mostly impacting mobile phone users. 

Outages were reported in many major U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, and Philadelphia. 

AT&T appeared to have the most reported outages, followed by Cricket, Verizon, T-Mobile, Boost Mobile and others, according to DownDetector. 

iPhone ‘SOS’ only – what does it mean?

During the outage, iPhone users reported seeing SOS or "SOS only" in the status bar. 

This means the device isn't connected to a network, but the phone users can still make emergency calls.

What to do if your iPhone or Android is stuck on SOS mode and you can’t call 911

Law enforcement and officials nationwide are sharing information on how to call in for emergency services if 911 is not working for you.

Ready Fairfax says the Fairfax County 911 center is still operational. They suggest calling from a landline or asking a friend or family member to call 9-1-1 on your behalf.

Can a solar flare be to blame for the AT&T nationwide outage?

With AT&T having been victim to a solar flare back in 1972 – can the same issue happen again?

According to our sister station in Orlando, the important distinction here is that AT&T was made up of landlines. The solar flare back in the 70s created a voltage on the physical lines.

FOX 35 Meteorologist Brooks Garner said the issue Thursday morning seems to stem from a SIM card database registry issue, Brooks said.

"Now, it is possible the X_class flare had impacts to the voltage on some electronics, but since this is so specific to AT&T and not other carriers, it's likely not space weather related," said Brooks.