This is only a test

This is a test; this is only a test – followed by a series of sharp, pitching squeaks and clicks on your typical AM radio dial. This was a weekly test of the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). The EBS was in place from 1963-1997, ostensibly to provide a United States president with an expeditious way to broadcast emergency alerts in times of war, natural disasters or any other grave national crisis.

In the early morning hours of Thursday, Feb. 22, as a major cellular phone system outage blanketed multiple metropolitan areas, took down part of the global GPS satellite directional systems and reportedly several major government call centers, we did not hear of that first from the EBS or any other major alert network.

The breaking news, primarily impacting the AT&T mobility network, reportedly impacted several million customers. AT&T later said 1.5 million customers were affected, while other industry experts put the number in excess of three million, between the outage, which began at 3 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday, Feb. 22, and continued in some places into early Friday.

I do believe in AT&T’s more than occasionally proven incompetence to not correct or to honestly admit to service errors and problems. I do not believe that this problem was entirely of AT&T’s own making. America led the modern world in plumbing, wiring, later fiber optics and satellite transmissions and still later a variety of wireless transmission communications platforms. However, none of those systems were designed or developed with espionage, hacking or protecting vital infrastructure from bad actors in mind.

Today’s AT&T took nearly two days to fess up to causing its own outage with a vague statement about upgrading the security and performance of its vast network. During 2003, the largest blackout in American history impacted 50 million Americans from Maine to Michigan, lasting several days, and was eventually blamed on one fallen tree and a squirrel.

Our way of life, including the electrical grid, internet, and our water delivery systems are as fragile as the next major solar flare, or a really good hacker, or perhaps a really rambunctious squirrel. And along with greater population density, the vast majority of our 48 states and Canada are interconnected. A major outage in one place overloads other parts of the network, and whether denied service or due to system overloads, those outages cascade.

But imagine that outage today, and the significantly higher reliance we place not only on the devices that run our lives, but the data and critical documents we have exclusively placed into the cloud. Electric utilities in most states have spent the past few decades improving grid resilience and reliability, yet a series of winter storms a few years ago took out most of the transmission grid in Texas, which remains the only state in the continental U.S. fully energy independent and not connected to the grid. In California, for several years in a row, sparks from an aging transmission grid have caused or started several multi-million-acre forest fires, in northern and southern parts of the state. In addition to the resulting air pollution, property damage and occasional loss of life, Californians have endured rolling brownouts and blackouts to manage the shortfalls and demand peaks on their remaining, damaged transmission grid.

We are not a household of preppers, but we do maintain a roughly 30-day supply of bottled water, rations, and canned goods, have a couple of freezers and smaller generators, and I have been boning up on my scouting survival skills. I am not trying to alarm or scare anyone, I just think it is smart to have a plan with your family and to have some degree of readiness for the likelihood that one day, in the not terribly distant future, we can expect major nationwide outages in our grid.

AT&T, in addition to underplaying the significance of this outage, which caused real challenges for millions of families, not just digital-first Millennials or Gen Z young adults freaked out by a world that temporarily did not include access to their smartphone or mobile device of choice.

The multi-billion-dollar global communications giant is offering impacted customers a $5 bill credit, to appear across the next two billing cycles. However, for thousands of AT&T customers, the inconvenience was much more significant than that. The telecom industry and its share prices live and die by “churn rate,” the acquisition costs of new customers as well as the number of customers leaving a specific carrier each month. For AT&T, this is really only a test.

Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@ gmail.com.

 

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