How reliable is the cellular network, really?

A few weeks ago, as you may recall, T-Mobile’s cellular network suffered a failure that rippled along the entire information superhighway. Even though the actual failure was limited to one company’s network, it affected all networks. Even people with landlines reported problems calling other landlines.

Communication is so important, today more than ever. Could one carrier really bring things down so easily?

Failures are possible, yes

As we have seen, cellular failures and internet failures are possible. But they are very rare. Our entire communications system has been built to be extremely redundant. There are multiple ways that data can get from place to place. It’s always been part of the strategy for telephone services, and it’s the core idea behind the internet.

So how does something like T-Mobile’s failure actually happen? It takes several things failing at once for there to be any real impact. That seems to be what happened. At first people were worried that it was some sort of systemic failure or attack, but that turned out not to be the case. It seems that it was a failure of two rather major switches, which is something that’s really hard to predict.

Every time something like this happens, new systems are created to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Could the cell network fail and take down the internet with it?

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible. So it’s hard for me to say that a massive internet failure couldn’t happen. But do understand that there are some pretty big safeguards to make sure that doesn’t happen. Yes, cellular data does travel over the same internet that other data does. Even voice calls are routed over the internet if they need to go any significant distance. But such an event would be practically impossible. The very idea of the internet is that it’s distributed, it’s fail-resistant, and it’s self-healing. Short-term problems wouldn’t turn into long-term ones unless the actual physical things that make up the internet were to become damaged.

When we do hear about massive internet outages, it’s usually because of relatively slim failure points. Take, for example, internet outages in the middle east and Africa in past years. The governments of those countries created those outages on purpose. They physically severed connections between those countries and the rest of the world.

What we have seen, even as recently as a few weeks ago, is that the internet, the cellular network, and the rest of our infrastructure heals very quickly. That’s by design.

So, we shouldn’t all contemplate a return to land lines

Being out of communication can be scary. But, it’s very hard to imagine a situation where any communications failure would last very long. Landlines are actually more susceptible to failures than cell towers, as residents of cities like New York and San Juan have learned. Short-term breakdowns, even ones that have a physical cause, are easier to address with wireless equipment.

Bottom line folks, don’t worry, it’s going to be fine.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.