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Tech Matters: Cellular outage helps make the case for landlines

By Leslie Meredith - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Feb 28, 2024

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

The company logo hangs over the door to an AT&T store Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Denver. AT&T says it will give affected customers $5 each to compensate for last week's cellphone network outage that left many without service for hours.

Last week’s AT&T outage left 70,000 customers without cell service for up to a full day. Those households that had a landline could make calls to others, but those without were largely out of luck. While landlines have become nearly obsolete — only 29% of U.S. households still have one — the outage showed the old-fashioned telephone may be due for a comeback.

The outage quickly stoked fears of a cyberattack and social media users, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, insisted China was behind the AT&T “attack.” The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued statements they were investigating the incident. White House national security communications adviser John Kirby said authorities were also looking into the outages and working with network providers to “see what we can do from a federal perspective to lend hands to their investigative efforts.” Rumors that all three major service providers were involved were later proved false.

At the end of the disruption, AT&T announced the outage was not due to a cyberattack. “Based on our initial review, we believe that today’s outage was caused by the application and execution of an incorrect process used as we were expanding our network, not a cyber attack,” AT&T said in a statement published on its website.

A cellular network may suffer an outage for several reasons such as a cyberattack and maintenance gone wrong as mentioned above, plus severe weather and natural disasters, power outages and network congestion. Landlines are usually more reliable than cellphones, especially when it comes to the second group of scenarios, because they’re built differently.

Landline phones are connected through physical cables laid underground or overhead, which are less susceptible to environmental factors like weather or interference. Cellphones rely on a network of towers and satellites, which can be affected by weather, signal congestion or physical obstacles. You never have to walk around your house to find the best spot for a connection if you’re using a standard telephone.

Photo supplied

Leslie Meredith

Power source also comes into play. Landline phones usually work during power outages because they are powered through the telephone line itself, which is often backed up by batteries or generators in central locations. On the other hand, cellphones rely on battery power, which can run out, especially during emergencies when charging may not be possible.

Calls made on a landline are rarely dropped and the sound quality is usually better. This is because your landline is a dedicated connection to your home and not shared with others. A cellphone connects to a network shared by multiple users and therefore calls may not go through when traffic is particularly heavy.

Finally, a landline may provide more accurate location data to emergency services personnel than your cellphone, especially if you live in a multistory building or in a sparsely populated rural location. Emergency service was prioritized by AT&T during the outage.

iPhone users saw “SOS” in place of the signal bars on their phones to indicate no network connection other than for emergency calls. If a user went beyond the emergency service area, SOS changed to “No service.” Apple upgraded this feature with the launch of iPhone 14, which relies on satellite service for emergency calls, so users should not be left without the ability to call 911.

If you have a landline, there are good reasons to keep it. If, like the majority of Americans, you rely solely on your cellphone, adding a landline for emergencies is worth considering. However, landlines can be expensive and in some new construction are absent altogether. The FCC is phasing out requirements for phone companies to provide landline services, which is why you may have only ethernet jacks if you occupy a new building.

Your cellphone can be used to make calls and send messages if Wi-Fi service is available even when cell service is not. In fact, AT&T issued a statement encouraging its users affected by the outage to use Wi-Fi calling. You must have this feature enabled on your phone for it to work and then you can use your cell number to make calls over a Wi-Fi network. AT&T also offers a digital phone that looks like a traditional phone but uses only VoIP for calls.

Wi-Fi calls use VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, and can be a great way to save money on calls. If you use Microsoft Teams to make calls, you’re using VoIP. The company I work for requires all of its employees around the world to use Teams for calls and has dramatically cut the cost of phone service. The same technology powers Apple’s iMessage, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts and Google Voice.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about technology for more than a decade. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.


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