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AT&T's 911 outage left 12,600 callers in the lurch

A network configuration error left thousands of AT&T customers around the country without access to emergency 911 service for five hours, the FCC said.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read

Call centers in Washington, DC, were affected by AT&T's 911 outage on March 8, 2017. The FCC reported preliminary findings of its investigation on the outage at the agency's March meeting.

Marvin Joseph, The Washington Post/Getty Images

AT&T's 911 service outage earlier this month affected thousands of customers across the country, according to a preliminary report from the Federal Communications Commission.

On March 8, roughly 12,600 callers throughout the US were unable to reach 911 emergency dispatchers for five hours, Lisa Fowlkes, acting chief for the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security bureau, told commissioners at the agency's monthly meeting Thursday. AT&T told the FCC that it typically handles 44,000 calls through its 911 service each day.

The outage occurred after AT&T had reconfigured its voice over LTE network, which transmits voice calls over the same network that handles its high-speed internet service. Some calls were rerouted to backup call centers. These calls were being manually forwarded to 911 operators, but when the volume of calls became too large, some calls were dropped, Fowlkes explained.

This resulted in some customers experiencing busy signals when they tried to call 911. Public safety officials told the FCC that some calls continued to ring and went unanswered while other callers say they heard nothing on the line.

A second AT&T 911 outage, caused by a hardware failure, occurred on March 11, which affected a smaller portion of calls, Fowlkes reported. The FCC said the two outages were unrelated.

"We've done an extensive evaluation of the outage, which was caused by a system configuration change between our network and a certified 911 vendor, and we're taking steps to address the issue," an AT&T spokesman said in a statement. "We take our obligations to our customers very seriously and will continue to work with the FCC as it completes its report on the situation."

The incidents come as problems with 911 service in Dallas this month may have resulted in the deaths of at least two people, one of whom was a six month infant. Initially it was believed T-Mobile may have been to blame, but the city of Dallas has since said the issue was not related to the mobile network, but was instead the result of large numbers of callers hanging up and redialing 911.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had announced an investigation into AT&T's outage as it was happening on March 8. He said at the meeting that he takes seriously the agency's duty to protect the nation's communication system

The FCC is continuing its inquiry into the incident, Fowlkes said.

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