AT&T calls on Twitter during outage

Want to find out why you suddenly don't have Internet access or cell phone service? You might want to check out the social-networking site Twitter.
Written by Marguerite Reardon, Contributor
Want to find out why you suddenly don't have Internet access or cell phone service? You might want to check out the social-networking site Twitter.

It seems that Twitter was one of the main ways that phone company AT&T has been communicating with customers and updating the public about the fiber cut that caused thousands of people in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area to go without broadband, phone, and wireless service for most of Thursday.

Janine Popick, CEO of VerticalResponse, whose company has been affected by the outage, said the only way she has stayed on top of the situation has been through Twitter.

"All of my real time updates have been coming from the AT&T Twitter feed," she said.

Indeed, she isn't alone. Nearly 2,400 people have been keeping tabs on the situation via AT&T's Twitter feed.

Twitter is a Web-based social-networking service that lets people send messages to a group of followers in 140 characters or less. It's been around for a couple of years now. I have to admit when I first heard about it, I thought it seemed like a service only narcissists would be interested in. After all, who really cares what I am doing or where I am going or even what I decide to eat for lunch. But the service has taken off in the past year, and it's now hitting the mainstream as everyone from doctors to restaurants are using the service to update patients and patrons.

And it appears that large companies, such as AT&T, are using the service to keep their customers and anyone interested in the company, informed in real time about a crisis.

AT&T began "tweeting" updates about the massive service outage in California around 7 a.m. PDT. With the first message saying:

"CA customers: We are aware of a cable cut situation impacting services in Santa Clara and San Jose areas."

From then on the company has sent about eight more "tweets" or messages informing customers that technicians have been on the scene and service would be restored as quickly as possible. The company apologized for the outage and also informed its followers that the outage was likely caused by vandals who had cut the fiber cables.

The company's most recent "tweet" actually notified its Twitter followers that AT&T is offering a reward for anyone responsible for vandalizing the company's infrastructure:

"AT&T offering $100,000 reward for info leading to arrest/conviction of those responsible for CA vandalism. Call 408-947-STOP."

The outage has affected thousands of people throughout the Bay Area, even non-AT&T customers. Because AT&T provides the fiber connections that link cell phone towers to their respective networks, wireless subscribers from almost every carrier were also affected by the outage. Some Verizon Communications DSL customers also saw service disrupted, because their service uses the AT&T fiber-optic cables to send its data traffic to its own nationwide network.

Sprint Nextel, whose wireless customers experienced service interruption, hasn't provided official updates via Twitter, but the company's spokeswoman Crystal Davis has also been updating customers and reporters via her Twitter feed. Davis' most recent tweet indicated the company still had no idea when service would be restored.

"Still working w/ our network and disaster recovery team on fiber cut issue in CA."

An earlier message tried to offer encouragement to those affected:

"Assessing fibercut issue in CA w/ network + emergency response team. We're all in this together folks. Let's have a day of peace in telecom."

Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, has also sent updates with links to news stories about the outage. He even sent a message to AT&T's media relations representatives asking who reporters should call for updates.

"@ATTNews Understand spokesperson has been tough for reporters to reach at AT&T on Silicon Valley outage. Who should they call for info?"

While hundreds of messages were sent back and forth on Twitter throughout the day among angry customers looking for more information on what has been happening, some affected business customers were also using Twitter and other social-networking forums to keep their customers updated on the outage.

For example San Francisco-based VerticalResponse has been following AT&T's updates via Twitter, and it's also been updating its own customers using Twitter. VerticalResponse works with roughly 56,000 small-business customers to distribute direct email marketing campaigns. And even though the company is based in San Francisco, its servers are collocated in Palo Alto, which was affected by the outage.

For most of the day, VerticalResponse was unable to send marketing campaigns on behalf of its customers. And because the company was disconnected from the Net, it also had no way to communicate with its customers through its corporate e-mail system.

So instead the company leveraged several social-networking platforms, including Twitter, to get the word out to its customers about what was happening. Instead of coming into the office, most of the company's employees stayed home, or went to coffee shops in San Francisco where they could get Internet access.

"Our clients are pretty pissed," said VerticalResponse's CEO Janine Popick. "And rightly so. When something like happens you just have to throw your hands up. There's nothing you can do. But the good news is we have been building up a Twitter base, and we have nearly 4,000 people as part of our online community, so we can communicate directly with them through Twitter or Facebook or some other social networking medium."

Amen for Twitter. But the big question still remains, "When will AT&T fix this mess?" I guess you'll have to check Twitter to know exactly when. VerticalResponse's most recent tweet indicates that its servers are up and running. And the company has sent all its email campaigns for the day.

This article was originally posted on CNET News.

Editorial standards