Was 13 hour mobile service outage in US a cyber attack? White House responds - Hindustan Times

Was mobile service outage in US a cyber attack? As conspiracy theories float, White House responds, initiates probe

Feb 23, 2024 10:55 AM IST

Thousands American mobile phone users were left without network for over 13 hours from 4.30am to 2.15pm on Thursday. Several wondered if it was a cyberattack.

A widespread cellular outage struck the United States, plunging AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon users into a state of communication chaos on February 22. Thousands who were left without network for over 13 hours from 4.30am to 2.15pm wondered if it was a cyber attack.

 A cellular tower is seen on February 22, 2024 in Redondo Beach, California. (Getty Images via AFP)
A cellular tower is seen on February 22, 2024 in Redondo Beach, California. (Getty Images via AFP)

Major Cellular Outage impacted thousands across US

The magnitude of the outage was particularly pronounced for AT&T, where nearly 32,000 reports of issues surfaced around 4:30 a.m., as recorded by Downdetector, a platform tracking outages through user-submitted errors. T-Mobile and Verizon also grappled with over 800 service outages, although a spokesperson for Verizon attributed some reported problems to users attempting to connect with people using other services.

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The disruption, with far-reaching consequences, even hampered some police departments' ability to receive 911 calls. The crisis extended beyond major carriers, affecting smaller carriers like Boost Mobile, Consumer Cellular, Straight Talk Wireless, and Cricket Wireless, the latter being under AT&T's ownership.

The consequences of the outage were felt across the country, affecting cities such as New York, Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and even reaching Montreal in Canada. Multiple police stations issued warnings that citizens might face difficulties reporting emergencies.

During the outage, biggest impact was felt by AT&T users who found themselves stuck in "SOS Mode," limiting their calls to emergency services. A spokesperson for AT&T advised users to rely on Wi-Fi calling while the company worked urgently to resolve the service disruption.

By 11:30 a.m., the company announced that three-quarters of its network had been restored. Full service was restored by 2:15 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&T said.

On Verizon and T-Mobile, spokespersons suggested, the issues only arose when customers tried to call or text those using AT&T, with a spokesperson.

What led to cellular outage across US?

As the users grappled to get network on their phones several conspiracy theories started floating across the country and the biggest one claimed, it was a cyber attack.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiated an investigation into the incident. Simultaneously, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is also working with AT&T to comprehend the root cause of the outage.

Despite the ongoing investigations and attempts to restore normalcy, frustrations mounted among users experiencing the outage. Some criticized the lack of timely updates from AT&T, while others expressed concerns about the unusual and alarming nature of the disruption. The incident underscored the vulnerability of the nation's communication infrastructure and raised questions about the resilience of major carriers in the face of unexpected challenges.

White House rules out cyber attack theory, initiates probe

While concerns about a cyberattack circulated, White House spokesman John Kirby stated that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were probing the AT&T outage but found no evidence linking it to a cyberattack.

AT&T shares statement on mobile outage

The cause of the massive outage became clearer as AT&T, in a statement, admitted that the issue resulted from an incorrect process execution during their network expansion. Dismissing concerns of a cyberattack, the company asserted that the disruption was due to system overwhelm rather than external interference. After a 13 hours ordeal AT&T managed to restore three-quarters of its network by 11:30 a.m., achieving full service restoration by 2:15 p.m.

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    Vertika Kanaujia is Editor Audience Growth at Hindustan Times and oversees the website’s coverage of business news, health, technology and internet culture. She is a Chevening Scholar and a Columbia Journalism University Fellow. Vertika has been a journalist for more than 18 years. After starting her career as a business journalist in TV she has worked with various leading news channels. You can email her at vertika.kanaujia@htdigital.in.

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