Major telecoms sign deal to keep some phone services running during future outages

·3 min read
Cellphone users in Toronto check their phones during the massive Rogers network outage in July. (Alex Lupul/CBC - image credit)
Cellphone users in Toronto check their phones during the massive Rogers network outage in July. (Alex Lupul/CBC - image credit)

Canada's major telecommunications companies have signed on to a formal agreement that could stave off the worst effects of a major outage such as the one that hit the Rogers network in July, the federal government announced Wednesday.

As part of the deal, the major carriers have agreed to support and assist their competitors during any future major network outages so customers can still make calls, access 911 emergency services and conduct business transactions.

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The companies also agreed to provide "clear and timely communications" to customers during outages.

"The telecommunications companies complied with our request to take meaningful actions to increase and improve network reliability in our country," Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne told a news conference in Vancouver.

"The Rogers outage of July 8 was clearly unacceptable and we must continue to do everything possible to ensure something similar does not happen again in the future."

You can read the full agreement here.

The Rogers outage, which started early on July 8 and — for some customers — lingered for days, left millions without cellphone and internet service. The company later said the failure was caused by an error during an internal system update.

Champagne said he was unhappy with the level of communication offered by Rogers during the outage.

"They should have been more forthcoming," he said.

WATCH: Champagne speaks to CBC's Power & Politics about the telecom agreement

Champagne said he was visiting Japan during the outage and reached out to Rogers CEO Tony Staffieri to discuss what happened.

"I don't think it should be the minister trying to reach the CEO of a telecommunications company when you have a major outage in the country. I think it should be the other way around," he said.

Agreement may not restore service for all affected customers

While Champagne is touting the agreement as a way of keeping Canadians and businesses connected to critical networks during outages, an industry expert says that won't be possible during major failures.

The new agreement calls for "emergency roaming" on a competitor's network to be made available to customers affected by an outage.

John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, said carriers probably won't have the capacity to provide services to everyone without service in the event of an outage like the one Rogers recently experienced.

"It's very unlikely that all of the customers of an affected provider will be able to find roaming on another carrier," he said. "It's not going to be like a backup network when there's a true outage like in July."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Lawford also criticized federal regulators for moving more slowly than their U.S. counterparts. He said the new Canadian agreement essentially replicates a plan announced by the Federal Communication Commission on July 6 — two days before the Rogers outage.

"It's something that should have been in place for a long while already," he said. "Our CRTC regulator was asleep at the switch."

Champagne described the new binding agreement as merely the "first step" in Ottawa's plans to improve reliability and accountability in the industry.

The government says it has given the Canadian Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee six months to come up with further measures "to ensure robust and reliable telecommunications networks across the country."

Champagne said Ottawa will also forge ahead with a plan to build a new public safety broadband network to be used in emergency situations.