U.S. operator AT&T said it is extending relief to AT&T Wireless and AT&T Prepaid customers after service disruptions caused by the explosion of a recreational vehicle in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, on 25 December. AT&T said the blast affected the central office of a telephone exchange containing network equipment.
The AT&T outages affected voice and internet customers primarily in the Nashville area and in Middle Tennessee, but also in outlying areas from Kentucky to Alabama. The explosion interrupted AT&T’s services at about noon on 25 December, and outages continued into the evening. Broadband internet service provider TDS said it, too, was affected, and T-Mobile stated that due to the explosion it was experiencing service issues in Nashville, Louisville, Knoxville, Birmingham and Atlanta. All the outages were mostly resolved by around noon on 28 December.
AT&T brought in portable cell sites and worked with law enforcement to get access to make repairs to its equipment. Several police agencies reported that the outage affected their 911 systems, including Knox County. The Federal Aviation Administration stopped flights leaving Nashville International Airport for almost four hours on 25 December.
Comcast told Nashville residents that its public Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the impacted areas are available for anyone to use, including non-Xfinity customers, free of charge. AT&T said it would waive data overage charges for customers in affected areas of Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois and Missouri from 27 December to 31 December. To make this possible, it will be automatically waiving service overage charges for AT&T wireless customers with billing addresses and AT&T prepaid customers with phone numbers in directly impacted zip codes.
The Nashville explosion, which was done deliberately but for motives that remain unknown, had an outsized impact on mobile and fixed internet and voice services across a geographic area that goes far beyond Nashville. Not only is the extent of the outage noteworthy, but so is the fact that the damage to the AT&T structure caused a ripple effect seen in outages among other providers.
While events such as this are thankfully very uncommon, the severe effects of this bombing serve as a reminder of just how interconnected telecom networks are, how much providers’ infrastructures depend upon each other, and how potentially fragile all these vital connections are. If at all possible, operators must strive to improve security and strengthen backup systems so that disruptions not only to ordinary consumer and business services but also to 911 centers and air-traffic controllers are minimized or, ultimately, prevented.
The efforts of AT&T, T-Mobile, TSD and other entities to restore service as quickly as possible, reassure their customers and provide free services in compensation are commendable. However, the Nashville bombing is a warning to the industry to put more and more energy and funds into protecting itself against more subtle and more devastating disruptions that could occur in the not-so-distant future. While physical attacks like the one in Nashville are likely one-off events, hacking attacks are unfortunately growing more prevalent and clever in their methods.