MCP Insights

Commercial Wireless Outages Will Keep Happening — Here’s How to Prepare

Posted on February 26, 2024 by John Chiaramonte

Last week, AT&T’s commercial wireless network suffered an outage that affected tens of thousands of AT&T customers in multiple locations nationwide. The company issued a statement that the outage was not caused by a cyberattack, which initially was feared, but rather a network expansion process that went awry.

Some might find that somewhat reassuring, but our perspective is that it doesn’t really matter why a network outage has occurred, only that it did. That’s because such outages cause a lot of headaches for the public-safety community and place citizens they serve at greater risk. Further, significant commercial network outages have happened numerous times in the past and will continue to occur in the future. Consequently, organizations need to prepare — the following are a few essential steps that should be taken, both by commercial wireless carriers and public-safety organizations.

Have a well-conceived crisis communications plan in place, well in advance — Figuring out how to communicate with stakeholders, and what to say, on the fly after an outage occurs is a very bad idea. Carriers need to develop in advance a clear, transparent, and memorialized process for communicating what happened and why, as well as the actions citizens should take until the outage is resolved, especially as it relates to contacting the 911 system. And the suggested actions need to be plausible. One of the suggestions that was floating around last week was that citizens should use their wireline phones to dial 911 — which might seem intuitive until one considers that only about one in four households in the United States today has a wireline connection. Was text to 911 an option? If so, that would have been a much better suggestion to communicate.

Similarly, emergency communications districts/centers also need a well-conceived and well-exercised crisis communications plan that can be put into action at a moment’s notice — citizens need to know immediately how to connect with the 911 system when traditional methods aren’t available. Such a plan should consider with whom the agency needs to communicate — i.e., citizens, government officials, nearby centers/districts, mainstream media, and social media — and via what means, e.g., the agency’s website, press releases/conferences, social-media postings, and emails/texts. It also should consider how often updates should be provided.

Have a way of quickly determining the outage’s impact — It is vitally important to assess and understand how the outage is affecting the emergency communication center’s (ECC’s) operations, which will provide great insight into the mitigation strategies and tactics that need to be executed. Again, this is not something that should be contemplated on the fly. We know of one 911 agency that keeps a supply of charged cellular phones ready, which are used to help test and ultimately determine an outage’s impact on 911 call volume.

Keep your land mobile system for the foreseeable future — Many public-safety agencies are thinking about abandoning their LMR systems, for a variety of reasons, in favor of the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) being implemented by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). However, they should consider that the NPSBN is being implemented in partnership with AT&T and leverages commercial Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology. We’ve seen media reports that last week’s outage impacted the NPSBN, though the degree is unknown at this point. Regardless, any interruption of this network is problematic, and could be catastrophic to emergency response if it were the only network being used by a public-safety agency.

Another factor to consider is that the NPSBN is a private network; consequently, the public-safety community lacks visibility into the network’s design and its relationship with AT&T’s commercial wireless network. As a result, it is impossible to know with 100 percent certainty how the NPSBN will perform when an issue with the commercial wireless network emerges.
So, we believe it is in an agency’s best interest to keep its LMR system operational for the foreseeable future (although implementing a private LTE capability might be a workable alternative — more on that in a future blog).
We have developed crisis communications plans for numerous clients and strategic plans for dealing with network and system service interruptions. We would love to work with you in this regard — please reach out.

John Chiaramonte is president of MCP’s consulting division. Email him at 

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