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How a T-Mobile Outage Got Mistaken for a Cyber Attack

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·5 min read
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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The T-Mobile US Inc. network went down for about 13 hours beginning Monday afternoon, and it wasn’t until almost a full day later that the company explained why. The interim provided plenty of time for baseless rampant speculation of a cyber attack — on a nation that’s already on edge — without any official source acting to dispel it. The series of events points to continued shortcomings by the industry and the Federal Communications Commission in providing reliable data, transparency and sufficient oversight when it comes to the health of America’s networks.

Internet and phone connectivity has never been more important than it’s been in the last three months, with many Americans still working from home and social distancing to stem the spread of Covid-19, and yet so little information is ever disseminated about the status of the country’s networks. Helpful third-party websites track things like internet speeds around the U.S., but they all use different methodologies and there isn’t any official authority for such data — not even at the FCC. It’s often left up to the network operators to decide when and what to disclose publicly.

T-Mobile is known for having a highly active Twitter presence and for communicating directly with customers in a way that most other companies don’t. That culture, which has earned it high regard with consumers, was created by former CEO John Legere, who stepped down in April as T-Mobile completed its acquisition of Sprint Corp. But when it came to Monday’s technological difficulties, which began just after noon New York time, the company was initially vague. Later that day, Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s president of technology, tweeted only that “engineers are working to resolve a voice and data issue that has been affecting customers around the country.”

Meanwhile, confused subscribers took to social media to complain about issues making and receiving calls and texts, including some AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. users who mistakenly thought the connection issues were on their end. Because sites like DownDetector.com scrape Twitter for these types of reports, it wasn’t long before a scary-looking map of a mass internet outage was circulating online, suggesting that it wasn’t just a T-Mobile problem. The map helped to inadvertently fuel false theories about a giant cyber attack on U.S. tech institutions broadly. And by Monday evening, Instagram feeds — where many young people get their news — were riddled with posts like this from meme accounts spreading misinformation:

In a post to the news section of its website at around 9:30 p.m. New York time on Tuesday, T-Mobile explained that there was a circuit failure at one of its third-party fiber providers in the Southeast and that backup efforts failed, overloading the network. The situation “was then compounded by other factors,” Ray wrote. “Our engineers worked through the night to understand the root cause of yesterday’s issues, address it and prevent it from happening again.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai tweeted that the outage was “unacceptable” and that he’s “demanding answers,” vowing to launch an investigation into the matter.

In some ways, it’s too little, too late, and that’s partly a result of Pai’s generally hands-off approach to regulation that entails asking questions later and giving slaps on the wrists after companies trip up. That can be seen in decisions such as repealing net neutrality — the concept of treating all web traffic equally — and, alongside Makan Delrahim, the Justice Department’s chief antitrust enforcer, approving T-Mobile’s takeover of Sprint with difficult-to-enforce concessions. It’s an administration that has prioritized the possibilities of faster 5G networks over the potential harm of market consolidation. It’s also been more concerned about content on the internet than the behavior of internet providers themselves, even though the whole of the U.S. economy is virtually dependent on their services.

At the end of March and start of April, as the virus lockdowns were getting under way, Pai checked in with companies such as T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast Corp. to see how their networks were holding up amid the sudden onslaught of demand. By March 21, BroadbandNow had found that 88 of the top 200 cities had “some degree of network degradation,” with places such as Austin, Texas, parts of California, Rochester, New York, and even Sprint’s home of Overland Park, Kansas, experiencing significant declines in internet speeds (they later improved). Still, the message from the carriers at the time was that everything’s all good, and Pai seemed comfortable taking their word for it, which he summarized in his own upbeat public statement.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, an outspoken advocate for greater oversight of the telecommunications industry, has called for the agency to issue daily updates on network status amid the Covid-19 crisis, just as it would during a hurricane or other events that activate its Disaster Information Reporting System. “Getting a few reports using different methods from a handful of companies is useful, but it’s not enough,” Rosenworcel said in a statement in April responding to questions sent to her office.

Things sometimes go wrong with technology, and that’s to be expected. But this week’s breakdown in communications — digital and verbal — shows why consumers would benefit from better industry oversight and a more formal system for reporting network failures with greater urgency and transparency.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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