AT&T outage puts Chattanooga's biggest retailers on cash only payments

Photo by Dave Flessner / Both of the Dillard's department stores at Hamilton Place Mall closed on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, due to AT&T phone outages triggered by a Christmas morning explosion outside of an AT&T transmission building in downtown Nashville.

On what is traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year, some of Chattanooga's biggest retailers were forced to accept only cash on Saturday due to the lingering telephone service problems for AT&T caused by the Christmas morning explosion in downtown Nashville.

Walmart, which operates 30 superstores and Neighborhood Markets in the Chattanooga region, was unable to process credit and debit cards due to the AT&T outages. Similarly, local Hobby Lobby stores were unable to process debit cards or gift cards on Saturday, although they were accepting credit cards.

Dillards posted a sign saying, "Our apologies. Due to the explosion in Nashville, our servers are down and we are unable to open at this time."

The AT&T service interruption, which may continue for at least another day or two, did not shut down card processing at most Chattanooga retailers where consumers flocked stores Saturday. But Walmart stores operated Saturday on a cash-only payment system and alerted all shoppers of the need to pay with cash only when they entered local stores.

"Due to the AT&T outage, some of our stores are experiencing temporary internet outages," Walmart spokesperson Camille Dunn said Saturday. "This may impact our ability to process credit card transactions and process returns. We are actively working with local personnel to get our stores back online and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."

photo Photo by Dave Flessner / Both of the Dillard's department stores at Hamilton Place Mall closed on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, due to AT&T phone outages triggered by a Christmas morning explosion outside of an AT&T transmission building in downtown Nashville.

The day after Christmas is typically among the top 5 shopping days of the year as consumers return unwanted or wrong-sized gifts or spend gift money and gift cards they received for Christmas.

AT&T said it is continuing to work around the clock to restore outages caused when a recreational vehicle exploded early Friday outside of AT&T's transmission building in downtown Nashville, disrupting cellular and other connections from Nashville to Chattanooga.

Nashville Fire Chief William Swann said in a news briefing Saturday he hopes to be able to restore power to AT&T building and return AT&T's cellular service across the region "hopefully within the next day if we are fortunate."

"It may take one or two more days to get everything back online," Swann said. "It is a big operation with the building itself. We're trying to at least get the generators back in order that the mobile phones will be back in operation.

The explosion in AT&T has knocked out AT&T cellular service to thousands of phone users in Chattanooga. Chattanooga police and Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency spokespersons on Saturday said they were not aware of any major problems caused by the outages. Each of Chattanooga's major hospitals - Erlanger, CHI Memorial and HCA Parkridge - also indicated through spokespersons that there were no major problems or interruptions during what is normally a slower weekend day for hospitals following Christmas.

Jim Kimberly, director of corporate communications for the Dallas-based AT&T, said Saturday the lack of phone service to AT&T customers in Chattanooga is a result of the Nashville explosion. Kimberly declined to provide other details about how many phone users or merchants have been hit by the outage across Tennessee.

On its website, AT&T said Saturday "our teams continue to work around the clock on recovery efforts." The phone giant has two portable cell sites operating in downtown Nashville "with numerous additional portable sites being deployed in the region."

"Challenges remain, including a fire which reignited overnight and led to the evacuation of the building," AT&T said in a Saturday update on its recovery efforts. "Currently, our teams are on site working with safety and structural engineers. They have drilled access holes into the building and are attempting to reconnect power to critical equipment. Technical teams are also working as quickly as possible on rerouting additional services at other facilities in the region to restore service."

As the FBI investigates the cause of the blast, city, utility and building owners are working to restore power in the blast area, which damaged at least 40 downtown Nashville structures. Douglas Korneski, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Memphis field office, said investigators are following more than 500 leads called in since the FBI and other authorities began investigating the explosion.

But state and local officials said they have not detected any evidence of other explosives and no extraordinary measures are being taken to help secure other AT&T facilities, including those in Chattanooga.

AT&T said Saturday evening that most phone services had been restored in Lexington, Kentucky, although AT&T cellular service remained limited in other areas in the region hit by the outage.

"We will continue to bring more areas back online as quickly as possible," AT&T said Saturday. "In Nashville, we have deployed more than six portable cell sites to aid in communication including for restoration teams and first responders. We have additional assets in route for deployment in the region."

AT&T also announced late Saturday it is providing $100,000 to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation to support area businesses impacted by the recent explosion and to help law enforcement collect information for their ongoing investigation.