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After Wireless Outage, Some Wonder If Old Phone Networks At Fault

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For about five hours yesterday, tens of thousands of people in the southeast were without cell phone service. For some, that included not being able to call 911. It's not exactly clear what caused the incident. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, state and local authorities don't have much power to find out what happened.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Cell phone service was down in parts of Kentucky and that made it hard for Ashley Johnson (ph) to coordinate childcare.

ASHLEY JOHNSON: I was trying to get out of, like, my work computer to get a text from my grandma so she made sure she's had my kids and let her know my phone wasn't working. It was horrible. It was several hours.

SYDELL: Authorities say it was around five hours, and it hit every single cell phone provider - Sprint, Verizon AT&T, T-Mobile. Officials in Tennessee and Kentucky both confirmed that the problem could be traced back to ground infrastructure operated by AT&T in Tennessee. Derek Turner, with the nonprofit watchdog group Free Press, says most cell phone providers still have to rely on some older networks.

DEREK TURNER: What a lot of people don't realize is that that cell tower connects your calls to a wire, and usually that wire is owned by the legacy monopoly phone company.

SYDELL: AT&T had no one available to talk about the problem. In an e-mail, a spokesperson said engineers pinpointed a hardware-related issue. But AT&T is not obligated to explain what happened to state regulators, according to Tim Schwarz, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.

TIM SCHWARZ: The wireline and wireless service, in particular, is market regulated here in Tennessee, so the TRA, as a utility commission, does not have jurisdiction over these issues.

SYDELL: This is also true in Kentucky. Turner, of the Free Press, says that providers have been lobbying for years to get rid of the federal regulations that once covered telephone service.

TURNER: And they've tried to sell policymakers on this idea that once we switch over to all IP-based communications, that there won't really be any ongoing need for regulatory oversight.

SYDELL: Turner says this means the government can't make sure that phone carriers are keeping up the infrastructure. Given the importance of cell phone communication, many groups, including Free Press, believe that we do need more government involvement. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.