What to do when there’s a mobile network outage

Stock photo of someone experiencing a mobile network outage
Image source: Adobe Stock
//DON'T PANIC. Read our guide first, then panic.
Alex Kidman
Dec 07, 2023
bullet6 min read

Published on December 06, 2023

In an ideal world, mobile networks would be rock-solid reliable, always there no matter whether you’re in the middle of one of Australia’s major metropolitan cities or in fact in the middle of, say, Cooladdi.

We don’t live in an ideal world, and mobile reception isn’t assured even if you’re not living in one of Australia’s smallest towns. The reality here is that mobile outages do happen, sometimes by design as new equipment is provisioned, and sometimes through catastrophic hardware or software failures, or just good old plain human incompetence.

So you’ve just picked up your phone to check your social feeds, maybe skim a few videos or even make a phone call… and nothing’s happening. What can you do?

In this guide:
  • Step 1:What’s your phone telling you?
  • Step 2: Reboot time
  • Step 3: Is it just mobile, or also Internet?
  • Step 4: Is it just you, or everyone?
  • Step 5: Check Telstra/Optus/Vodafone network status
  • Step 6: Contact tech support
  • Step 7: Fume
  • Step 8: Get back online in the meantime

Step One: What’s your phone telling you?

The first step in working out what’s gone wrong is looking at precisely what your phone is telling you about its current connection status. For most smartphones this can be a simple glance at the network connection icons at the top right of the phone screen. If it’s reading as (variously) 3G/4G/5G, then it at least thinks it’s on a mobile network. If there’s a Wi-Fi icon instead, it could be that it’s on a Wi-Fi network, but it’s one with limited or no actual internet connectivity. If all you see is an SOS icon, then your phone isn’t seeing any kind of compatible mobile network at all.

It’s also worth considering your mobile phone contract status. If you’re on a prepaid phone plan, have you run out of credit? On postpaid, is your bill paid and up to date? Your mobile provider may have cut you off if you haven’t paid, or if your payment details aren’t up to date with a valid credit or debit card.

Step Two: Reboot time

contract/telco issue. The simplest way to do this is to put your phone into Aeroplane mode. This switches off the phone’s radio antennae – as is often required for most plane flights – and as such, deliberately “cuts” your phone’s mobile data connection.

Why do we want to do that? So we can try to reconnect it. Turn on Aeroplane mode on your phone, wait about ten seconds, and then turn it off again. This forces your phone and SIM to try reconnecting to the mobile networks it knows, and can sometimes be all that you need to do to get back online again.

The more nuclear version of this, and definitely worth at least a try if that doesn’t solve the problem is to fully reboot your phone. This restarts everything, and can in some instances be all that you need to get back online and on with your day.

If you have access to another phone – even if it’s an older handset – it may also be worth doing a little SIM-swapping to rule out device hardware faults at play. If a SIM card works fine in one phone but is DOA in another, then it may need repair or replacement.

It’s also worth considering your mobile phone contract status. If you’re on a prepaid phone plan, have you run out of credit? On postpaid, is your bill paid and up to date? Your mobile provider may have cut you off if you haven’t paid, or if your payment details aren’t up to date with a valid credit or debit card.

Step Three: Is it just mobile, or also Internet?

While it won’t solve every problem, one quick fix for your mobile connection woes is to jump onto Wi-Fi instead. Here if you’re at home, connect your phone to your home’s Wi-Fi connection if it’s not already online. This will optimally give you all services save for some messaging and calling functions depending on your provider. Many do support direct Wi-Fi calling using a straight Internet connection, though depending on the nature of the mobile outage you may find that some incoming calls fail to arrive.

However, if your home Wi-Fi connection is also down and it’s with the same provider as your mobile service, that’s a sign of a bigger and wider outage issue.

Step Four: Is it just you, or everyone?

Sometimes, the reason why you can’t get your mobile to work might be entirely individual, or limited to a small outage area. As an example, it’s not uncommon during bushfires for mobile towers to be badly damaged, taking an area offline. The problem might be just within your suburb or town, statewide or nationwide depending on the issue.

So how can you tell? If you’re able to get online via some other method, such as public Wi-Fi in, say, a shopping centre or public library, check the support pages or network status pages of your provider’s underlying network. The issue here is that they’re sometimes a little slow to admit that there are problems, and this is where more crowdsourced services such as Down Detector can help. Bear in mind that the crowd sourced nature of Down Detector means that it’s not always 100% accurate, because one person could report an “outage” that’s nothing more than their failure to pay a phone bill on time. Still, if you see a big spike in outage events for your network, that could be a sign of a rolling outage problem.

Step Five: Check Telstra/Optus/Vodafone network status

The reality of mobile networks in Australia is that no matter who you are, you’re only connecting to one of three mobile networks, namely Telstra, Optus or Vodafone.

You might think “hang on, I’m not a customer of any of them, because I’m with amaysim/Lebara/ALDIMobile…” – and you are in terms of payments, but each of those mobile network virtual operators (MVNOs) piggyback onto existing networks – Optus, Vodafone and Telstra respectively in each case.

So how can you tell which network your phone is actually using?

Here’s a full rundown of all MVNO providers and the networks they use.

Each of the network telcos has its own internal reporting tools, and they make some of this data – but far from all of it – available to customers so that they can see the status of their networks and any already reported faults. It’s a good idea to check there to see if they’ve already noted a fault and/or provided any updates such as expected fault resolution timeframes.

If the indications are that there’s no known faults, then maybe flag one, but equally if there’s a note that services should be up in the next 10 minutes or so, maybe take time for a coffee break and wait it out. Treat yourself to a chocolate biscuit while you’re at it. You’ve earned it.

Step Six: Contact tech support

Depending on the issue – but especially if you seem to have a mobile outage that nobody else has reported – this can be the time when you need to contact your telco’s tech support. Obviously without a working mobile this can be tricky, but if you can get online via other methods such as public Wi-Fi, or asking your neighbours nicely, you may be able to send in a request via an online form, email or social media. If you have access to a working landline and can find the relevant contact support numbers, calling in is also an option in. most cases.

Bear in mind when talking to customer support representatives that – once you get through whatever layers of phone menus that they have -- you’re conversing with an actual human being. It’s certainly frustrating to be offline and you have justification, but being angry and abusive isn’t going to progress your call to any great extent.

Step Seven: Fume

Being without phone service sucks, and it’s stressful. You have our permission to scream into a pillow, punch a soft toy or walk around in little circles muttering to yourself for a few minutes in order to settle your head. Chocolate is also good, we hear.

Step Eight: Get back online in the meantime

The practical reality of an online outage is that if the problem is with the mobile network and not with your phone, then unless you also moonlight as a network engineer for the affected telco, there’s not so much you can do to get the actual service back up and running.

What you can do is get back online in the meantime, especially so if there’s pressing work or study to do. Or even just to finish out that Netflix binge while you wait for your phone to go back online, we won’t judge.

Here you’ve got a few options. The cheapest would be to check local businesses and services that might offer free Wi-Fi; your local public library is often an excellent place to start, but you could also opt for the free Wi-Fi that many shopping centres or shopping districts offer as well. Bear in mind that some of these services do require sign-ins with emails that may be used for marketing purposes, and many will also have their own strict data usage and/or time limits. Public payphones – if they’ve got the distinctive pink top – also offer Telstra-based Wi-Fi for free to all consumers even if you’re not a Telstra customer, though this won’t be much use if it’s Telstra having the network outage of course!

Your other option – and especially well worth considering if you’re constantly seeing outages or suffering through poor connectivity – is to consider switching both provider and network.

There is generally little point in staying with a given network and just switching who your billing is coming from; if you went from one Optus MVNO to another you’re still going to be hit by any Optus network issues, and the same is true for either Telstra or Vodafone.

Here’s a range of affordable phone plans across all three networks for you to choose from:

Alex Kidman
Written by
Alex Kidman
Alex Kidman is some kind of word-generating AI from the future that somehow worked out how to sneak back in time to 1998 to start its journalism career. Across that time, including editorial stints at ZDNet, CNET, Gizmodo, PC Mag and Finder, as well as contributions to every major tech masthead, nobody has quite managed to figure out this deeply held secret. Let’s keep it between us, OK?

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