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Verizon outage in Reno 2 February 2011

What happened? My CDMA Tracfone was showing ‘no service’ – strange.

The Huffington Post reported a Verizon cell phone outage and says the Record Courier thinks it was a downed cell tower in Washoe Valley. I don’t think so.

The outage was over a broad area in northeast Nevada. What it looks like is that the AAA, authetication, authorization, and access, server went down. The network could not determine a cell phone was a valid user on the network which is why the ‘no service’ message.

Scribd has a CDMA Overview that describes what is going on between your cell phone and the system. It is not like a landline where the wire to the switch does all the work. In a cell system, the phone has to find a network, authenticate itself as a valid user, and follow instructions about frequencies to use and other parameters. That requires a number of messages between the phone and the nearby cell access points (towers) and the central AAA server.

These sorts of outages such as Verizon had in Reno don’t occur very often. They do illustrate a failure mode that is a bit different from traditional landline systems as the failure affected a large area completely whereas traditional systems tend to just impact localized areas or particular links or services.

I don’t think the loss of a single cell tower would cause this sort of outage but it is likely to be difficult for us ‘common folk’ to get the real scoop without a lot of digging.

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