April 18, 2024 10:08 am

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Massive solar flares strike Earth but communications blackout was not related, experts say

Two massive solar flares hit the earth last night around the same time that a widespread communications disruption for tens of thousands of cell phone users across the globe without service.

The disruption primarily targeted AT&T and Verizon users and affected many daily activities including ride share apps (like Uber and Lyft), delivery food services (like Uber Eats and Grubhub), and of course cutting ties from emergency response and impacting businesses that rely heavily on cellphone-based communications.

A solar flare is an eruption from the Sun blasting electromagnetic energy at the speed of light that can last minutes to hours. Flares of this magnitude are typically uncommon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

The two R3-rated solar flares were two of three flares that erupted from the Sun yesterday with the first occurring late afternoon, February 21, through the overnight hours into early February 22 gaining an R1 rating by the NOAA.

The strongest of the three events peaked at 6:07 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on February 21 and the second R3 peak was at 1:32 a.m. Eastern Standard on February 22.

R3-rated solar flares do have the potential to disrupting electronic equipment and communications networks but according to British astrophysicist, Dr. Ryan French with the National Solar Observatory, the communications blackout was entirely coincidental.

“Some people are attributing cell network outages (AT&T, Verizon) in the U.S to last night’s X-class SolarFlare. However, flares only cause radio degradation on the dayside of the Earth,” Dr. French took to X (formerly Twitter to say). “The U.S was not affected by the event. So it’s just a coincidence!”

Dr. French’s statement does corroborate with the NOAA who said “based on the intensity of these eruptions and associated phenomena it is unlikely that these flares contributed to the widely reported cellular network outage” in a report published Thursday morning while stating solar flares can indeed “affect communication systems, radar, and the Global Positioning System.”

Still, tens of thousands of cell phone users across the globe were found without cell phone service with many of their phones display “SOS” messages indicating emergency modes were in affect, as tracked by DownDetector – a website that tracks real-time outages and disruptions of various services.

While AT&T said in a statement that roughly three quarters of its cell phone network has been restores, as of noon Thursday, number of outages still range around 75,000 according to DownDetector. As of Thursday afternoon 51% of users still say they are without service.

“Some of our customers are experiencing wireless service interruptions this morning. Our network teams took immediate action and so far about three-quarters of our network has been restored. We are working as quickly as possible to restore service to remaining customers,” AT&T emailed in a prepared statement.

The cell phone outage impacted access to crucial emergency services across the nation. On Thursday morning the San Francisco Fire Department took to X (formerly Twitter) to say they were aware of the outage and urged those seeking medical attention to use a landline and/or get a hold of a friend or family member who is a customer of a different carrier. 

“We are aware of an issue impacting AT&T wireless customers from making and receiving any phone calls (including to 911). We are actively engaged and monitoring this. The San Francisco 911 center is still operational. If you are an AT&T customer and cannot get through to 911, then please try calling from a landline. If that is not an option, then please try to get ahold of a friend or family member who is a customer of a different carrier and ask them to call 911 on your behalf. Do not call or text 911 to simply test your phone service,” the tweet reads.

According to Pew Research Center data from 2021, only around 3% of American adults do not own a cell phone. However, this translates to about 325.4 million people.

If the solar flare had no affect on the widespread cell service outage the question remains what did, leading some wondering whether it could be a cyber attack of some sort.

Marco Rubio, Florida State Senator, took to X (formerly twitter) to say the following:

“I don’t know the cause of the AT&T outage but I do know it will be 100 times worse when China launches a cyber attack on America on the eve of a Taiwan invasion, and it won’t be just cell service they hit, it will be your power, your water and your bank,” Rubio wrote.

ABC News reported Thursday that their outlet received two sources brief on the situation who said the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), among other agencies, are urgently investigating whether the outages are the result of a cyber attack, a hack, or whether it was just a technical malfunction.


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