Millions left unable to text – life, somehow, goes on

  • @timwalker

On Wednesday afternoon, the O2 mobile network suffered a technical fault, leaving thousands of its 22.3 million customers across England, Wales and Scotland unable to call or text. The outage also affected GiffGaff and Tesco Mobile subscribers, whose coverage comes courtesy of O2. The firm's website crashed under the weight of disgruntled visitors. Thanks to their smartphones' WiFi capabilities, though, they were still equipped to tweet furiously about the disruption.

Yesterday morning, with the outage ongoing, O2 customers were advised to switch off their phones' 3G and switch to the 2G network for calls and texts, leaving some with a very modern dilemma: should they prioritise their web access, with its emails and tweets, or their phone's traditional features, ie: the phone? Full service was restored at lunchtime, but not before serious damage was done to O2's reputation.

The issue was reportedly related to the way different phones register with the provider's network, hence the geographical spread of those affected. According to Jack Kent, a mobile analyst at IHS Screen Digest: "Most customers are used to having outages on their phones, but usually they are local issues, so they don't cause this sort of widespread media coverage."

Many O2 customers were unable to text for 24 hours in June, while Orange's 26 million French subscribers suffered a nine-hour loss of coverage last week. The most spectacular service failure in recent memory came last October, when Blackberry users were unable to access their smartphones' web capabilities, including email and IM, for three days. The publicity fallout for Blackberry manufacturers RIM was severe; some users publicly destroyed their devices.

Loyalty to handset makers is more viscerally felt than a customer's relationship with his or her network, but when something goes wrong, it gets noticed. According to Ofcom data, O2 is regularly the least complained-about of the major networks. But the year's fourth quarter is crucial for sales of new handsets and this incident will still be fresh in consumers' minds as they do their Christmas shopping. Says one industry insider: "Networks and their coverage are also being heavily scrutinised in advance of the Olympics, so this is really bad timing for O2."

O2 is the UK's second biggest network. The company was also the first to partner with Apple for the release of the original UK iPhones and, Kent explains, still has a higher proportion of iPhone customers than rivals. "It's coming up to two years since the iPhone 4 was released, so there are quite a lot of O2 customers coming to the end of two-year contracts, who may be looking to get new devices very soon." Will they now look elsewhere?