Subscribers with several networks, notably AT&T and T-Mobile, reported being unable to download data or use their apps for hours soon after receiving a “presidential alert” test. AT&T blamed an unrelated hardware problem.
Cell phone networks across the Pacific Northwest were hit by a mysterious disruption this morning minutes after the inaugural “presidential alert” — although at least one cellphone provider insists the two events were not related.
For several hours Wednesday, subscribers with several networks, notably AT&T and T-Mobile, reported being unable to download data or use their apps soon after the text alert, which was sent at 11:18 a.m. Pacific Time.
“The presidential text alert went out and after that I lost all internet, Gmail, apps — everything stopped working,” said Sarah Mendivel, a medical researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital. When Mendivel finally got through to AT&T, she was told “they didn’t know what it was,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
Soon after the outage, both T-Mobile and AT&T reported being aware of the outages but did not know why they had occurred or when service would be fully restored, according to online news accounts. But by 5:30, AT&T was reporting the problem had been addressed.
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AT&T spokesman Leland Kim said late Wednesday the problems “have nothing to do with the presidential text alert. It was a hardware data issue.”
The outage began at around 11:21 Pacific Time — about two minutes after the inaugural test of the National Wireless Emergency Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. The system was designed as a means to alert the public in the event of a terrorist attack, national disaster, or other imminent threats to public safety
The presidential text alert, which was slated to go out to 225 million cell phone users nationwide at 2:18 p.m. Eastern Time, was reportedly plagued by other glitches. In some parts of the country, some cell phones users were reporting not receiving the message at all, according to several online accounts.
If you didn’t receive the alert, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) says there are several reasons that may happen. An older cell phone (before about 2012) may not be WEA compatible, a cell phone may have been off or in airplane mode, it may have not been within range of an active cell tower, or a wireless carrier may not have participated in the test.
A spokesperson for T-Mobile said the carrier had been warned by FEMA that cell phone users could expect up to a 30-minute delay in receiving the signal.
But the network disruptions appear to have been unexpected. At the AT&T Wireless store in University Village, store employees were hit by unhappy customers shortly after the text alert, but were unable to give much in the way of technical assistance or even an estimate of when the network would be back on line. By late afternoon, some users were reporting a return to services.
“Mine just came back 45 minutes ago,” said one store employee, who declined to give her name, at around 4:30pm Wednesday. “But we don’t have an estimate for the entire network.”
The outage was particularly unwelcome for users who depend on their cell phones for work. Some Lyft drivers were unable to use their apps or get passengers, said Mendivel, who also drives for Lyft part-time.
Despite the loss of work, Mendivel, 35, maintained a sense of humor about the disruption. She was one of the small crowd of customers who descended on the AT&T store in University Village — and who quickly determined that they had all been hit by the same problem at exactly the same time — 11:21am. “It was kind of like a sci-fi movie,” she said. “I mean, we’re all off the grid now.”
The outage was reported by some customers from Oregon to Alaska.
This post has been updated to include comment directly from AT&T.