The exact error message from Thunderbird
Of course, AT&T does not have almost any mobile phone coverage in southern Champaign, so I gave them my email address instead, but as AT&T does not have email support yet - only phone, Twitter, store and web chat - they still kept asking for a phone number and my AT&T account number (which I didn't have with me).
Now, I wouldn't want to be telling the people at the largest ISP in the United States - and almost pioneer and inventor of many technologies and - what services they have and how they work. Their basic services are super expensive, but I think it is apparent that they do not even know that they provide SMTP services in their network - and not even just in their network but also from outside if you happen to have an AT&T email account for any reason, and as far as I know, the free Yahoo! email services use the exact same server.
Nevertheless, they wanted to know whether I was a U-Verse or a DSL customer. (Let's forget for a while the fact that DSL is a technology whereas U-Verse is a brand name for a cable model based broadband service.) It should not matter, because the use of outbound.att.net is not restricted to any specific service or product. Actually, I'm using it with my phone - and my phone's network connection is much faster than my AT&T U-Verse broadband. Anyway, even though I told them this is important and urgent, they have not been in contact with me since - this is probably due to the fact that today is a national holiday, and this is also why I wanted to know possible problems right away, instead of entering some lengthy helpdesk process that goes into idle mode over holidays.
Now, AT&T has been restructuring its services and corporate structure lately. The question of whether some services are in operation or not is very relevant to many (consumers and enterprises) who depend on them. I don't use AT&T's email service to receive emails (even though I could), but because I mostly connect to Internet using AT&T's services, the use of outbound.att.net as the SMTP server is a natural and the recommended choice.
I think the AT&T customer service does not know what the difference getween webmail and SMTP is. Or, more importantly, they seem not to be aware they are not the same thing. They are also not aware that even though your email settings are correct, there can still be something wrong on the server side, and knowing if this is the case is a great start for the debugging process.
Now, if you have time and a workstation to work on, you may browse the AT&T website to try to find outage information and similar announcements. But they may not be up to date or assess this specific problem at all - for example, AT&T's website still doesn't acknowledge the reception problems in southern Champaign even though it has been reported to them at least one year ago.
I think an efficient and reasonable exchange (on Twitter, for example) would go something like this:
Customer: Hi, I'm having trouble sending email with outbound.att.net. Can you check if there's an outage or something?
AT&T Support: Hi, we are sorry to hear you are having problems, but we have no information of any outages related to outbound.att.net.
Customer: Ok, thanks! I'll check if there's something I can do about it here.Then, if there indeed are no problems AT&T is aware of, the customer can check many connection-related parameters and other stuff. On mobile connections, the said problems happen quite often, but in my case it was a problem with a desktop computer at home. After knowing that it is not a general server outage, the next contact would be through technical channels and be about more advanced settings and other technical matters.
As AT&T ought to know, they serve the whole United States and its very diverse population. They serve students, IT professionals, single moms, nuclear fusion research facilities, NASA, politicians, people whose mother tongue is other than English, the blind and the deaf, pizza parlors, dentist's offices, the government. This is quite a challenge. But for most of these, the recommended (and the only) choice when they send email with some other technology than webmail (even though webmail uses te same server still), is through the SMTP server outbound.att.net, and knowledge of whether this server works is relevant if not crucial to their businesses, hobbies, research activities, benefit applications and so on. It should be treated as such.