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AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint report service restored after Tuesday’s outage in Southeast

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Questions about Tuesday’s large mobile outage in Southeast have quieted down, as people see their service restored.

WHNT News 19 confirmed with four of the major carriers, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, that service is restored and most people had service by Tuesday at 8 or 9 p.m.

AT&T’s Director of Media Relations Lance Skelly said wireless and wireline service was restored for all customers in parts of the Southeast affected by a hardware-related network issue.  Skelly said the engineers completed repairs and service is running normally.  AT&T apologized for any inconvenience.

Service went out around 2 p.m. Tuesday and was fully restored by 7 or 8 p.m. central time.  AT&T is still investigating the root cause of the issue, and was focused on restoring service, Skelly said.

Some customers across parts of the Southeast region were affected, including customers in Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama.

What exactly happened?

Buddy Rogers, spokesman for the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management, told CNNMoney that a fiber-optic cable belonging to AT&T was cut along the Kentucky-Tennessee border Tuesday.

He wasn’t yet sure how or why the line was cut — it could have been vandalism or a raccoon. Kentucky’s Commonwealth Office of Technology is investigating.

Wireless companies are a notoriously secretive bunch, so none commented directly on the cause. But Sprint, in a statement, said the issue appeared to be “caused by a local exchange provider.” AT&T said it was a “hardware related issue,” but did not confirm that its cable was cut.

A cut in AT&T’s fiber cable adds up as the likeliest root cause of the outage, given the companies’ statements. (AT&T is the local exchange provider for the region, and fiber counts as “hardware.”)

But how could a single cut to a fiber cable bring down service on Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile too?

To find an explanation let’s journey through the foggy mists of time, all the way back to 1984, when Ma Bell (AT&T) broke up. The “Baby Bells” became responsible for maintaining the local telephone service infrastructure.

Years later, when cell phone towers started going up, the wireless companies had to connect them to the telephone system operated by the Baby Bells. Eventually, those Baby Bells started combining to form massive telecom giants again — two of which are today’s AT&T and Verizon.

So even though Sprint and T-Mobile are responsible for carrying the signal from your phone to their cell towers, they’re still largely dependent on AT&T and Verizon to carry cell phone calls over the landline and fiberoptic infrastructure in many regions. And Verizon and AT&T are dependent on one another (and other, smaller companies) when they’re operating in regions in which they don’t control the fiber and landlines.

What’s unusual about this event is that fiber cuts typically don’t result in massive outage. A single hoodlum (or squirrel) shouldn’t be able to disrupt service to an entire region with a single, well placed cut.

“Fiber is usually deployed with resiliency effects put in place, so a cut is not a disaster,” said Ken Rehbehn, wireless analyst for 451 Research. “It makes you wonder: Was there a chain of events leading to this?”

Some have asked if customers will get credits on their bill.  Skelly, with AT&T, said his company’s customer care team will review bill credits on a case-by-case basis.