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CRTC requests detailed explanation about service outage in letter to Rogers

Ottawa is giving telecom companies around two months to come up with a clear network resiliency plan

By Adena Ali in Toronto

Canada’s telecoms regular has ordered Rogers Communications Inc. to provide a detailed explanation for last week’s widespread service outage that affected millions of Canadians and knocked out access to some health-care, law enforcement and banking services.

The CRTC said Tuesday it has requested that Rogers respond by July 22 to detailed questions it sent the company, including on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ the outage occurred and what measures it is putting in place to prevent future outages.

Ian Scott, chair of the CRTC, said in a statement that the request was the first step the agency was taking to improve network resiliency.

“Events of this magnitude paralysing portions of our country’s economy and jeopardizing the safety of Canadians are simply unacceptable.”

This request comes a day after federal industry minister François-Philippe Champagne confirmed that the CRTC would investigate the outage and met with Rogers chief executive Tony Staffieri and the head of several other telecom providers.

In the meeting, Champagne directed the companies to come up with a crisis plan, including agreements on emergency roaming, a “mutual assistance” framework during outages and a communication protocol to “better inform the public and authorities during telecommunications emergencies.”

With Canada’s big telecom companies now tasked with developing a backup plan to mitigate the impact of future outages and other emergency scenarios, one former telecom executive says that there is the risk of creating a situation where a competitor’s network becomes overwhelmed and service is ultimately degraded.

Former Telus chief financial officer Robert McFarlane said that while devising a strategy to ensure everyone’s phones are able to function on other networks if there’s a service outage makes “tremendous sense,” the telecom providers will have to be very thoughtful in their approach.

An additional challenge would be determining whether or not a provider should favour their own customers over those using that provider as a backup during an emergency situation, he explained.

McFarlane also said if Quebecor is successful in acquiring Shaw-owned wireless carrier Freedom Mobile, it would allow the Montreal-based company to increase its national presence and strengthen its business, consequently opening the door for Rogers and Quebecor to potentially become redundancy backups to each other.

The deadline for Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor to reach a definitive agreement on the sale of Freedom is July 15.

Carleton University professor Dwayne Winseck said consumers could have more power in emergency situations if they had the option of temporarily switching to another network on their own during scenarios like last week’s outage.

He said Google’s mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) service in the U.S., Google Fi, that allows people to switch carriers using a web-based application, could be worth possibly replicating here in Canada. 

“For emergency situations, the government and CRTC could mandate a daily cap roaming fee for subscribers who jumped onto another network,” he said.

The federal government is giving the telecom companies that participated in Monday’s meeting around two months to come up with a clear network resiliency plan. If the providers are unable to come up with one in that timeframe, Winseck said there are some levers Ottawa can pull.

“They can issue an order-in-council under section eight of the Telecoms Act. They can also impose such obligations as a condition of licence in the next round of spectrum auctions,” he said.

The industry minister could also factor the lack of a comprehensive resiliency plan into his ongoing review of Rogers’ $26-billion proposed deal to buy Shaw, and in so doing “put a thumb on the scales in opposition to the deal,” Winseck added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 12, 2022.

Feature image – Telecommunications company Rogers Communications signage is pictured in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.