Widespread U.S. Cellular Service Outage – Exploring Speculations of Solar Flares, EMP & Cyber Attacks

Last Updated on March 4, 2024

On February 22, 2024, breaking news of a disruptive cellular service outages across the U.S. left over 1.5 million individuals without phone services. AT&T, one of the major carriers affected, attributed the outages to a coding error in a software update for their wireless network expansion. The outage prompted investigations by the FCC, FBI, and Homeland Security, reflecting the severity and significance of the event.

Exploring Possible Causes for the Cell Service Outage

Numerous theories emerged to explain the widespread outage before AT&T admitted to an execution of an incorrect process used which led to a coding error, each shedding light on the vulnerabilities inherent in our digital infrastructure. Solar flares, EMP attacks, and cyber attacks have all been topics of controversy surrounding the recent cell phone outages experienced by AT&T customers (with some reports also affecting Verizon and T-Mobile customers). Keep reading to explore each of these phenomena and determine their potential impact on the outage.

1. Could the Recent Solar Flares Have Caused the Latest Service Outage? 

The timing of the service interruption coincided with the eruption of two powerful “X-class solar flares.” from sunspot AR3590 on February 21 at 6:07 p.m. ET and February 22 at 1:32 a.m. ET, as per NOAA.

Coincidence? It actually may have been. 

Solar flares, immense eruptions of energy from the sun’s surface, if big enough, can lead to geomagnetic storms that emit hazardous particles and radiation, including high-energy protons and x-rays. 

While Earth’s protective layers mitigate their impact, they can disrupt various forms of communication and navigation systems. Solar flares–if large enough–can be considered “Natural EMPs” or natural electromagnetic pulses, which we get into more later. There was a major geomagnetic storm in 1859 called The Carrington Event that disrupted the telegraph network. If a similar storm occurred today, it could cause trillions in damages to satellites, radio communications, and power grids, leading to prolonged blackouts.

The recent flares were rated X1.7 and X1.8. NOAA classifies solar flares on a scale of A, B, C, M, and X, based on X-ray intensity, with each level ten times stronger than the last. X-rated flares have significant intensity, but NOAA experts suggested that the link between the flares and the cellular network outages was unlikely. 

The most harmful emissions coming from major solar flares include energetic charged particles (high-energy protons) and x-ray EMF frequencies. X-rays from flares disrupt the ionosphere, which do affect radio and satellite communications, but cellphones do not operate in the same HF bands that use the ionosphere.

According to Solar Physicist Ryan French, the flares would have needed to be 20x the strength to disrupt the frequencies of UFH bands used in cellphones–and they would have needed to have happened while the U.S. was pointed towards the sun.

The flares caused consecutive shortwave radio frequency blackouts lasting one or two hours, with the first affecting the western U.S. and Pacific Ocean, and the second over the Indian Ocean. Since the U.S. outage predominantly affected one carrier that was later and farther from the flares’ location, solar scientists suggest terrestrial explanations for the disruption. NOAA’s space weather prediction center stated, “While solar flares can affect communication systems… it is highly unlikely that these flares contributed to the widely reported cellular network outages.” 

2. EMP Attacks and Cellular Outage–Possible Correlation? 

While a solar flare or geomagnetic storm interrupting our telecommunications systems is completely outside of our control, the same effect can be created by humans, as a type of cyber attack. 

The prospect of a purposeful EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) attack was brought up by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis quickly following the AT&T cellular outage. 

An EMP attack involves a targeted burst of electromagnetic energy aimed at crippling power and data networks, including cell phone service and other electronic devices. It can weaponize the entire power grid, leading to widespread panic, chaos, and loss of life. An EMP attack would render GPS systems inoperable, disrupt phone and text communications, impede hospital operations, and sever electronic communication networks worldwide. 

In addition to Natural EMPs, (like a massive solar flare), there are Nuclear EMPs and Non-Nuclear EMPs (NNEMPs). Nuclear EMPs result from a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere, releasing gamma radiation that creates a powerful electric current. Non-nuclear EMPs are less potent but could still create catastrophic damage and are seen as effective military weapons. With a range of hundreds of meters to several kilometers, they are delivered via missiles or bombs on drones or aircrafts. NNEMPs disable communication networks, disrupt tanks, disable naval ships, jam radar systems, induce power outages, and more.

Could the recent outage have been due to an EMP cyber attack?

Since this event mainly affected AT&T users in multiple regions across the US, and only affected their cellular service, an EMP is not seen as the cause of this event.

 Though not implicated in this event, the possibility of such an attack remains a concerning prospect that could lead to disaster, as highlighted by Florida Governor DeSantis in a statement shortly after the outages, “What would end up happening to this country? You’re so naturally reliant on having cell service. It’s a little bit jarring to think about.”

3. Could a Cyber Attack Trigger an Outage?

Amidst the digital age’s reliance on interconnected networks, the threat of cyber attacks looms large. While AT&T did not confirm a cyber attack, it remains a plausible theory given the increasing frequency of such incidents. The potential for malicious actors to exploit vulnerabilities in digital systems underscores the need for robust cybersecurity measures.

A cyber attack is the most realistic theory, as someone could have hacked AT&T and purposefully created a coding error or software update error in their system. Anyone is at risk of a cyber attack and cyber attacks have been on the rise as the world relies so much more on digital technology. While AT&T did not say this was a cyber attack, we wouldn’t be too surprised if this was the case.

Ways to Mitigate Risks of Solar, EMP and Cyber Attacks

In light of the potential threats posed by EMP and RF cyber attacks, individuals and organizations can take proactive steps to mitigate risks. Placing devices inside Faraday cages or utilizing Ultra Armor Faraday Bags offers protection against electromagnetic pulses, safeguarding critical electronics from potential damage.

Radios, cell phones, laptops, portable gas and electronic generators, and other similar electronics are all vulnerable to the effects of EMPs. Placing these devices inside Faraday cages or fully enclosing them in conductive material can help prevent EMP damage and ensure that they’re available when they’re needed the most. A Faraday cage, devised by Michael Faraday, employs a metal enclosure to deflect incoming electric fields through electromagnetic induction.

DefenderShield Faraday Bags compared to competing brands: Ultra Armor®️ Shielding Technology blocks up to 99% of wireless Radio Frequency (RF) EMF radiation & the entire 5G spectrum (300 Hz-90 GHz). Top competing brands worldwide can only block up to 20-40GHz, IF that. With the rollout of 5G becoming more widespread, it is important to note that 5G= 50GHz, meaning competing brands will not be able to protect 5G devices.

Navigating the Aftermath: Safeguarding Our Interconnected World in the Face of Technological Vulnerabilities

The widespread cellular service outage of February 22, 2024, serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities inherent in our interconnected world. Whether triggered by natural phenomena or deliberate actions, disruptions to communication networks underscore the need for vigilance, preparedness, and robust mitigation strategies in an era defined by technological dependency. As we navigate an increasingly digitized landscape, proactive measures are essential to safeguard against unforeseen threats and ensure the resilience of our critical infrastructure.

Daniel T. DeBaun

Daniel T. DeBaun is an internationally recognized and influential expert in Electromagnetic Radiation (EMF) and shielding electronic emissions, with a particular focus on the effect of exposure from mobile devices such as laptops, tablets and cell phones. Daniel’s concern regarding the health impact of electronic radiation emissions grew from over 30 years of engineering experience in the telecommunications industry, where he held a variety of leadership and executive positions at Bell Labs, AT&T, SAIC and Telcordia. Daniel is co-author of recent bestseller, Radiation Nation: The Fallout of Modern Technology, a complete guide to EMF radiation safety and protection. Daniel is also a highly regarded industry consultant, speaker as well as frequent guest national radio and television programs discussing EMF health issues.