AT&T will cough up 5 bucks to subscribers affected by its outage. Is that enough?

After an extended outage on February 22 that left around 50 million mobile customers (including me) without service for many hours, AT&T is crediting some people’s accounts by $5.

Is that the right compensation?

What went wrong

AT&T says the cause of the problem was an error in installing software — and there is no reason to suspect a cyberattack. Here’s the official explanation from a letter that the CEO sent to employees:

 Our initial review of the cause of Thursday’s outage indicates it was due to the application and execution of an incorrect process used while working to expand our network. 

Notice the complete lack of people in this statement. But clearly somebody pushed the wrong button at the wrong time. (Anybody who has ever installed a piece of software can related, but c’mon, the people who run AT&T’s network should know better.)

There is no official statement of how many people the outage affected, but the letter says that “about three-quarters of our customers were able to access our network as they started their days around 5a.m. CT.” This would imply that approximately one in four AT&T wireless customers, or 40 to 50 million people, had a problem.

It took 11 hours to get everybody reconnected. This is the most surprising part of the outage: that the largest mobile provider in the United States couldn’t fix a configuration problem in a timely way.

Here’s the message I got on my phone Friday, the day after the outage:

It’s AT&T. We apologize for Thursday’s outage, which may have impacted you. As a valued customer, your connection matters and we are committed to doing better.

Putting aside the dangling modifier (“your connection” is not “a valued customer,”) — AT&T, couldn’t you afford a copy editor? — the main question I had after receiving this text was, “So what are you going to do about it?”

On Sunday, three days after the outage, AT&T announced it would provide a $5 credit to some of the affected customers. The good part about this is that you don’t have to do anything; the credit just appears on your bill. But there’s no indication of who is going to get the credit, just that it will appear on some of our bills.

AT&T’s pretends that it sells mobile service, but that’s not what it actually sells

What do you actually pay your mobile provider for?

Given all the ads about who has the best network and how dependable their networks are, I’d argue that mobile connectivity is not what you’re buying.

What you’re buying is the ability to connect to mobile calls, texts, and data whenever you need it.

Here’s a thought experiment. You can choose one of two mobile providers. Mobile provider A is available 90% of the time, and charges $20 per month. Mobile provider B is available 99.9% of the time, and charges $40 per month. Which one do you choose?

Nobody wants a mobile provider that’s not there one time out of ten. So nearly everybody would choose mobile provider B.

Consider for a moment what likely happened last Thursday.

Somebody got hit by a bus, and a bystander tried to call 9-1-1 — but got no signal while the poor sucker sat there in pain and bleeding.

An 11-year old attempted to call their mom to get picked up from school, but couldn’t get through.

A small investor attempted to place an order to sell stock shares they owned to get money they needed to pay for their kid’s college tuition, but missed the deadline because the order never went through.

A business deal worth half a billion dollars was ready to close, but the lawyers and accountants and executives couldn’t reach each other to hammer out issues before the deadline.

A minimum-wage restaurant worker took two buses and an hour and fifteen minutes to get to their job, only to find that their boss had texted them saying not to come in to work that day, as they were not needed until the following day.

A college student failed to show up for an interview because the GPS on their phone wasn’t working and they were depending on that to figure out how to get to the employer’s office.

A trucking company that uses AT&T’s network for logistics was unable to manage its fleet, causing tons of produce to spoil before it could get to its destination.

I don’t know for sure, of course, but if I had to guess, I’d estimate that the true cost of the lack of availability of a purportedly dependable mobile network for half a day could easily get into billions of dollars. That’s a lot more than $5 per customer.

AT&T sells a network that is there when you need it, any time you need it. How much is that worth? A lot more than one day’s lost connectivity.

Brand damage

All connection providers have outages.

But an outage that lasts many hours and affects tens of millions of customers, not just for calls, but for text and data, is a more serious violation of trust. And five bucks isn’t going to fix that.

How many AT&T customers, after Thursday’s outage, will say “I’ve had it with these guys, it’s time to switch?”

Will advertising from competing providers subtly imply that it’s time to give up on undependable big AT&T? I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.

Watch AT&T’s subscriber numbers and share price. This one’s going to leave a mark.

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  1. I received the same bland message. After such a colossal screwup, you’d think that the AT&T comms folks would at least use Grammarly. Sheesh. Seems like many companies haven’t learned much since the United Breaks Guitars days.