Business·Analysis

What happened at Rogers? Day-long outage is over, but questions remain

A day after a software error wiped out wireless services for thousands of Rogers customers across Canada for most of the day, consumers, telecom executives and critical public services still have questions about what exactly happened and how it can be avoided in the future.

Thousands of people across the country lost cellular service all day on Monday

Thousands of Rogers customers across the country lost their cellular services for much of the day on Monday. (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

A day after a software error wiped out wireless services for thousands of Rogers customers across Canada, consumers, telecom executives and critical public services still have questions as to what exactly happened and how it can be avoided in the future.

Wireless service was offline for much of Monday for thousands of Rogers customers, along with their Fido and Chatr brands. Most impacted customers seemed to be clustered around Toronto and Montreal, but there were reports from across the country, starting early Monday morning, and the network only came back online fully after 8 p.m. eastern time. 

On Tuesday, the company extended an olive branch to affected customers, offering "a credit equivalent to yesterday's wireless service fee," or whatever one day of service would cost on their monthly plan — roughly $2 on a $60 monthly plan, for example.

"We offer our sincere apologies and will work hard to earn back your trust," the company said. 

Toronto resident and communications specialist Rachael Collier, a Fido customer, said she first noticed her phone wasn't working Monday morning when she tried to make a doctor's appointment.

"I thought my call wasn't going through because so many people are trying to get vaccines today," she told the Canadian Press.

"Then I realized I couldn't make any calls," Collier said. "They're saying it's intermittent, but my phone hasn't worked all day. It's clearly an absolutely massive outage."

Milton, Ont., resident Deep Mehta said he hadn't had service for more than 12 hours.

"It's frustrating because I'm trying to operate a business from home and that's the number that everyone has," he said. "I just had to take my son to the orthodontist and I couldn't check in on my phone."

WATCH | Rogers networks hit by widespread outages across country:

Rogers networks hit by widespread outages

The National

3 months ago
1:16
Rogers’s wireless and data networks were hit by widespread outages for most of Monday, not only impacting people working from home but critical health-care communication and some 911 services. 1:16

Emergency services impacted

Emergency services across the country were impacted, but Rogers notes that outgoing 911 calls were never inaccessible for customers.

Ottawa-based independent telecom consultant Russell McOrmond said losing such services illustrates the seriousness of the outage.

"This was not some minor inconvenience," he said in an interview. "A lot of municipalities had to send out messages telling people to keep trying."

McOrmond says he is especially concerned that the outage impacted Canada's vaccination plans for COVID-19, as many people couldn't book or find out about appointments. 

"Due to the Rogers outage yesterday, some vaccine clinics were forced to use paper-based reporting," a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Health told CBC News in a statement Tuesday.

"It was so much bigger than anyone realizes," McOrmond said.

Public vs. private 

A software developer for more than 30 years, McOrmond has testified at numerous CRTC hearings about wireless policy, and he says the outage underlines a fundamental problem of the industry — that instead of being treated like a utility, telecommunications networks have been handed over to private companies, which own every part of the infrastructure.

He isn't arguing that the solution is a government-run cellphone company, but rather that the infrastructure should be deemed a utility run by municipalities, and then companies would compete to offer services on it.

"When the private sector provides all the layers we see the sort of silly failures we see in Canada," he said.

Rogers is one of the three biggest telecommunications providers in Canada. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

Rogers blamed the outage on a software update from Ericsson, one of its network equipment providers.

While anything can break, McOrmond argues that allowing companies to own and operate all parts of their vertically integrated telecom networks makes those problems cascade when they happen.

"Contrary to what the 'government is bad' ideologues say, with basic utilities like water and power, yes we have an outage every once in a while, but we have far less outages than the private sector services we get."

Competition would 'create robust networks' 

Telecom executive Anthony Lacavera founded Wind Mobile more than a decade ago, and while he currently has no active role in Canada's telecom sector, he is a firm believer that competition — not more government involvement — is the way to fix any problems.

"Having independent competitors would ensure that the right investments are being made to create robust networks," he said in an interview Tuesday.

"I understand that public utility argument, but I think it underestimates the cost of building the networks we need," he said.

Lacavera views Monday's outage as a wake up call about how important these networks are, not only in the current world where more people are working online and remotely because of COVID-19, but also because of the 5G future that will be even more dependent on connectivity.

"It's one thing to lose your ability to tweet or go on Facebook but quite another when an autonomous vehicle loses connection," he said. "Imagine an outage in the next generation, with remote surgeries.

"Yesterday it became clear to Canadians how important wireless networks are."

Roaming arrangements

Lacavera acknowledges that every technology is capable of breaking down, and he says Monday's outage is a lesson in where it needs to improve.

"If I wanted to put my engineering hat on, I would say what is the most survivable network?" 

The answer, he says, is one where phones that are down on one network can be transferred seamlessly over to another network while the outage is repaired. If this sort of roaming arrangement had been in place Monday, then according to Lacavera, "the traffic could have moved."

There's no clear answer as to why that didn't happen, which is why McOrmond is in favour of turning Canada's wireless airwaves into something more like a public utility.

"There's things that should be utilities, and things that should be private sector," he said, and finding out which is which should be paramount because "the way we do our telecommunications is costing us."

With files from The Canadian Press

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