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A widespread cellphone outage left thousands of users without service today

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tens of thousands of AT&T customers across the country found themselves without cellular service this morning. This caused disruptions to 911 calls that people were trying to make on their cellphones today. The White House said that both the FBI and Homeland Security are helping the Federal Communications Commission to get to the bottom of what happened. Well, NPR's Scott Neuman has been digging into this story and joins us now. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: OK. So what was the scale of this outage today?

NEUMAN: Well, AT&T hasn't really said how many customers were affected, but a website that tracks these things - it's called downdetector.com - says the number peaked at around 74,000 reports of outages in the 9 o'clock hour Eastern time this morning. There were reports of these service disruptions coming from places as far apart as San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C. According to the Downdetector website, Texas appears to have been pretty hard-hit. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin all reported a lot of outages.

CHANG: Man.

NEUMAN: What we do know is that the reports of outages suddenly spiked around 3:30 a.m. Eastern and continued to climb but then peaked at around 9 and then started to decline through the afternoon as service was gradually restored. By late morning, AT&T sent a statement to media outlets saying about three-quarters of the network was back up and running. As for inconveniences, naturally, AT&T customers trying to place a call or send a text message weren't very happy.

CHANG: Right.

NEUMAN: But some calls are more important than others. Obviously, 911 centers across the country had some issues.

CHANG: Yeah. Tell us more about that. Like, how did all of this impact emergency calls?

NEUMAN: So there were a number of reports from 911 services that things were not working very smoothly due to the outages. Emergency and fire departments in San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C., posted on X, formerly Twitter, that they were having problems. One 911 center actually recommended using a landline if someone couldn't get through on a cellphone.

CHANG: Who has one anymore?

NEUMAN: Exactly. I mean, it's worth noting that a survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics in 2022 reported that about 70% of adults and more than 80% of children in the U.S. live in cellphone-only houses. So it's not quite clear where people were going to find those landlines.

CHANG: Yeah.

NEUMAN: But it's also important to know that unless all service is down, anyone with a cellphone can make an emergency call even if your provider is unavailable. But what doesn't come through for the dispatcher is the location information and the sort of sophisticated caller ID that 911 uses. So even though dispatchers are taught to get all that vital information, not having it readily at hand might slow down some response times.

CHANG: Right, which could really make a crucial difference in some cases. So how does AT&T explain what happened today?

NEUMAN: So AT&T hasn't said what happened. But by late this afternoon, they said that the service was fully restored to all of its customers.

CHANG: That is NPR's Scott Neuman. Thank you so much, Scott.

NEUMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.