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Cellphone Service Down For Thousands, But Regulators May Never Know Why

Tens of thousands of people in the southeastern U.S. went without cellphone service Tuesday for about five hours. For some, that even meant they couldn't call 911.

The outage hit parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. It's not exactly clear what caused the incident. State officials say years of deregulation have made it nearly impossible for authorities to find out details from telecom companies. State regulators say they have no way of knowing if the problem stemmed from neglect of the infrastructure, an accident, or sabotage.

What is known comes from statements made by the major phone carriers — Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T. All of the carriers say the problem started at a part of the infrastructure that's buried in the ground, and is owned and operated by AT&T.

Derek Turner, with the nonprofit watchdog group Free Press, says most cellphone providers still have to rely on some older networks. "What a lot of people don't realize is that a cell tower connects your calls to a wire and usually that wire is owned by the legacy monopoly phone company," he says.

In an email, an AT&T spokesperson said engineers pinpointed a "hardware related issue."

NPR contacted the state utility authorities in Kentucky and Tennessee. Andrew Melnykovych of the Kentucky Public Service Commission says he thinks it may have been a cut fiber optic cable. "But, beyond that," says Melnykovych, "we don't know much."

Tim Schwartz, a spokesman for the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, has different information. "My understanding is that it was a router issue," says Schwartz. "It just failed to work and so they just had to replace it."

And it is likely these agencies will never be able to tell us more than the phone companies choose to reveal. According to Schwartz, "the wireline and wireless service in particular is market-regulated here in Tennessee. So the TRA, the Utility Commission, does not have jurisdiction over these issues."

Turner of the Free Press says that the telecoms have been lobbying for years to get rid of the federal and state regulations that once covered telephone service.

"They've tried to sell policy makers on this idea that once we switch over to all IP based communications that there won't be any need for ongoing regulatory oversight," says Turner.

The Federal Communications Commission does have the ability to look into it. But, Turner thinks it would be more efficient for state regulators to have oversight. And he says, the telecoms have been trying to get rid of the federal regulations as well.

One thing is certain. Cellphones have become essential to contemporary life. When Ashley Johnson of Louisville lost her service on Tuesday, she struggled to make child care arrangements.

"I was trying to get on my work computer to get in touch with my grandma," she says, "so she made sure she had my kids and to let her know my phone wasn't working. It was horrible. It was several hours."

About five hours, say authorities. And that's about as much detail as they may ever know.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.