Hundreds of thousands of Vodafone customers were left unable to use their phones yesterday after important communications equipment was stolen during a break-in at one of the company's technical facilities near Basingstoke in Hampshire.
Voice calls, texts, mobile internet and voicemail were all disabled for some customers as early as 12.50am. Services were gradually restored throughout the morning, although many customers said they were still disconnected well into the afternoon.
A spokeswoman said: "We had a break-in last night at one of our technical facilities which resulted in damage done to some of our equipment. This means that some customers may be experiencing temporary loss of voice, SMS and internet services. We are working quickly to restore these and will be back to normal as soon as we can."
The spokeswoman confirmed that the incident affected "hundreds of thousands" of Vodafone's total customer base of 19 million. She described it as a "fairly serious incident", saying nothing of its kind had occurred before.
As Vodafone customers complained on the social networking site Twitter about their lack of service (although not, presumably, via their own mobile phones), speculation grew that the company had been victim of a concerted attack. It was recently the subject of protests over claims that it was let off paying part of an outstanding UK tax bill, and had also been criticised for shutting down its phone network in Egypt during the recent pro-democracy protests.
But the spokeswoman said the stolen equipment, described as computer and network hardware, "had serious value" and had not been sabotaged but "carefully removed."
She stressed that there had been no impact on the privacy of customer's data.
The area affected was, she said, "primarily the M4 corridor and some areas either side."
By 1pm Vodafone said it had restored all 2G and 3G voice services and was working to get voicemail and text messaging back up and running. By 6pm much of the service had been restored, although "a few isolated pockets" remained disconnected. Vodafone said it hoped services would be fully restored by the end of the day.
The company would not comment in more detail on the precise nature of the highly specialised equipment, or what use it might have in the outside world. The facility is believed to house equipment worth many millions of pounds.
As angry customers waited to be reconnected last night, many were asking for compensation for the inconvenience, although that seems unlikely. "We never guarantee a 24-hour service," the spokeswoman said. "There are too many variables to make that possible. That is in our terms and conditions.
"All of our focus today has been on network restoration. But we will look into everything that has occurred today, and everything will be subject to review."
The burglars were reported to have smashed their way into the building using sledgehammers, a far cry from the cyber-crime that companies and individuals are forever being told they must protect themselves from.
As the rage escalated on Twitter from the many thousands unable to use their phones, one user, Stephanie Clark, was more philosophical. "It's days like today when you wonder how we ever lived without a mobile phone?" she wrote.