Carrier Outages Show How Tenuously Our Smartphones Tether Us to the World

Commentary: Yet another AT&T service outage reveals the perils of reyling on devices that connect your entire life.

David Lumb Mobile Reporter
David Lumb is a mobile reporter covering how on-the-go gadgets like phones, tablets and smartwatches change our lives. Over the last decade, he's reviewed phones for TechRadar as well as covered tech, gaming, and culture for Engadget, Popular Mechanics, NBC Asian America, Increment, Fast Company and others. As a true Californian, he lives for coffee, beaches and burritos.
Expertise Smartphones | Smartwatches | Tablets | Telecom industry | Mobile semiconductors | Mobile gaming
David Lumb
5 min read
A hand holds up a phone with "Searching..." in text on its screen, with a rural road and wild background behind it.
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In February, I was on a call with a carrier's support line trying to return my new iPhone I'd bought through its store, which meant transferring service to a backup phone. Unfortunately, I'd left that backup phone at my parents' house across town -- so when the carrier cut service and the call went dead, I had to drive half an hour to get my backup handset. 

It was the first time I'd been completely without a mobile connection since college. If I had an accident or got lost, I was on my own. Heck, I couldn't even text my dad that I was coming home. My smartphone dependency reared its head and I felt bereft and isolated without a lifeline to the world in my pocket.

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AT&T customers nationwide felt the exact same thing in early June when they suddenly couldn't call anyone using other carriers. The loss of connection was a repeat of an incident in February when an AT&T service outage abruptly cut them off from mobile networks for several hours before it was restored. 

While its network was down, AT&T told affected customers to lean on Wi-Fi for their smartphone needs, which can keep folks connected in a pinch if they stay in one place and don't need to use cell network-only services like SMS. But for everyone else who had to drive to work or otherwise leave their house or office, the outage was a reminder of how much our daily lives are routed through smartphones.

It's such an obvious reality that it requires little explanation -- anyone hitting a dead zone on a long drive discovers they can't alter their GPS route through their maps app or stream a new song. Same thing when you don't charge your phone and it dies late at night. An annoyance, but usually a temporary one. When outages last an unforeseeable length of time, it shows how much our daily flow depends on an endless stream of information and connection.

Let's take work as an example. For better or worse, having email and occupational messaging apps like Slack on our phones has slid modern workers into the expectation of being reachable at all times. If you can't respond to outreach, you could suffer consequences -- even when the lack of access isn't your fault. Losing access to news and activity feeds can stop people in some industries -- like, admittedly, journalism -- from working entirely.

For families, constant communication is crucial to make sure kids get picked up and driven to sports practice and tutoring, dinners get coordinated and schedules are followed. When the constant flow of updates dry up, tempers flare and parents may fear the worst.

And losing service while on the go means you can't even triage your problem. Is service down for everybody or just you? Does the problem lie with your device, its software or the network? 

All of which is to say that smartphones have trained us to expect a constant flow of information that we unconsciously use to course-correct by the minute. All that hustle and productivity culture leads us to squeeze in one more email or task if we hear that our next meeting got delayed; if a friend cancels evening plans, we can immediately reach out to someone else or pivot to a night tackling necessary chores. 

Cut off the flood of updates and info, and we're left scrambling to do what people did before smartphones: make inferences and take action with incomplete information. Which can be unsettling, if not downright harrowing for those who take comfort in GPS and news updates.

A man outdoors holds his iPhone 14 up to the sky to connect to Emergency SOS.

Apple's Emergency SOS feature connects iPhone 14 and iPhone 15 owners in remote areas to emergency services using satellites.

Kevin Heinz/CNET

This is a feature, not a bug, of our modern constantly online lives -- which, we have to admit, has been remarkably outage-free compared with the network blips that used to regularly knock out phone service in prior decades. While there's something to be said for weaning yourself off doomscrolling or overindulging in TikTok or Instagram, just having access to anything you may want to look up or order online or navigate to has led us to treat online service as an umbilical feed from the outside world. 

If nothing else, the AT&T outage and the smartphone dependency it exposes should be a reminder that backup communication methods are still around. Something as simple as swinging by the library or a friendly coffee shop to use its Wi-Fi to access email or non-SMS messaging platforms can let you get the word out to bosses and family that your network is down. Ask a business to use its landline and make calls, even to friends or colleagues (who hopefully aren't also affected by an outage) to look online and see what's up with your carrier or if service is just down in your area. 

We're all guilty of plugging an address into GPS and letting it guide us turn by turn to our destinations, so it will probably take a minute to relearn what we did before Google Maps on our phones. Heck, MapQuest.com still works for planning your route, so check it on Wi-Fi and write down or print out directions. If you can make it to a big bookstore, Thomas Guides and similar maps are still sold. Or you can rely on the kindness of strangers and ask a passerby for directions (or ask them to look it up on their maps app). 

Emergencies aside, there's something else tragic about losing connectivity for long periods of time: We can't check X-formerly-Twitter, Instagram, Reddit or whatever else you use to distract yourself from the ennui of existence. For this, there is no solution beyond condescendingly pointing readers toward a bookstore once again, but at least it's a reminder of how much social media and dumb internet jokes we can access regularly. In the silence without your online lifeline, you can bide your time brainstorming the perfect meme encapsulating your temporary offline exile to send to your group chat later.

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