T-Mobile Data Network Has Rare Widespread Outage Monday
07/03/2012| 01:31pm US/Eastern
--T-Mobile data network has widespread problems Monday night
--Outage is rare for major wireless carrier
--Comes as company is upgrading network, catching up to rivals
By Thomas Gryta
T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG (DTE.XE, DTEGY), experienced widespread problems with its wireless data network on Monday night in a rare stumble for a major wireless carrier.
In a message sent to followers of the company's Twitter feed, the carrier said it was experiencing "a network-data issue" and that some customers may be impacted. Two hours later, T-Mobile said full service had been restored, but no other details were released.
The trouble comes as the company is in the middle of a multifaceted transition in order to keep up with larger U.S. rivals. As consumers increasingly use their phones and other devices to consume data, the competition between the wireless carriers is increasingly focusing on network speed and quality.
It wasn't clear exactly how many people were affected, although T-Mobile's service notice and the customer reaction to it on various Internet forums indicate that the problem was widespread.
A T-Mobile spokewoman said customers may have experienced "intermittent data session failures" for about two hours on Monday night and that voice service wasn't affected. The cause of the problem is still under investigation, she said.
T-Mobile is trying to make up for lost time in upgrading its network after AT&T Inc.'s (T) $39 billion bid to acquire the company fell apart amid antitrust concerns. Subscribers have been fleeing as T-Mobile is the only major U.S. carrier without the ability to sell Apple Inc's (>> Apple Inc.) popular iPhone. Furthermore, T-Mobile is looking for a permanent Chief Executive after Philipp Humm resigned last week to take a job with Vodafone Group Plc (VOD VOD.LN).
John Byrne, an analyst at research firm IDC, said widespread network outages on national wireless networks are rare because the 3G technology has been in place for years and is well understood by the operators.
T-Mobile, in its statement, confirmed that customers had problems connecting to both the 3G network and the next-generation HSPA+ network, which is a faster version of 3G that some companies have controversially relabeled as 4G. At the end of 2011, smartphone customers with a 3G device or better accounted for 40% of its more than 27 million customers under the T-Mobile brand.
The company is upgrading to 4G LTE, or Long Term Evolution, a technology that is faster than 3G networks.
"Why you would have this kind of an outage right now is a bit concerning," Mr. Byrne said. "The 3G technology has been commercially deployed for 10 years now in one form or another."
Verizon Wireless has had a number of outages with its LTE network since its launch, which Mr. Byrne said were likely just "growing pains" related to operating the new technology.
Network quality is important as the carriers battle to both retain and recruit customers. Unlike when the iPhone was exclusively offered by AT&T, data-hungry consumers can get virtually any smartphone connected to any network; even T-Mobile has more than 1 million iPhones running on its network. Most of the carriers now make bold claims in their advertisements about the superiority of their network.
Despite these claims, local network issues are fairly common because of storms or congestion, Gartner analyst Phillip Redman said, because the systems are built on a local and regional basis using switching centers.
"It is very, very rare to see anything on a national basis," he said.
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