NetTalk subscribers' phones disconnected in Canada during dispute

Seventy-five thousand Canadian subscribers of the internet-based phone service NetTalk are wading through a war of words between the Florida-based company and its Canadian carrier, trying to figure out why their phones aren't working.

Iristel, the Canadian carrier, says it's owed $2 million

Phone service has been restored to thousands of Canadian NetTalk customers who couldn't receive calls for days. (iStock)

Seventy-five thousand Canadian subscribers of the internet-based phone service NetTalk are wading through a war of words between the Florida-based company and its Canadian carrier trying to figure out why their phones aren't working.

Call Luc Fournier's home phone line in Ottawa, for instance, and you get a recorded message that his line has been disconnected.

"I've given that phone number for the last 30 years," said Fournier, who is concerned about the calls he may be missing from friends, family and even appointments.

Fournier said he switched to NetTalk, one of several voice over internet protocol (VoIP) providers operating in the country, because he was frustrated by costly phone bills at his traditional company.

He paid only about $50 per year with NetTalk, he said, and enjoyed the convenience of being able to have calls to his home phone also ring at his cottage because calls were carried over the internet.

'Holding the numbers hostage'

But, like other Canadian NetTalk subscribers, Fournier's phone troubles began last Friday.

Customers then received a lengthy explanation from the company on Jan. 18, which blamed Iristel, the carrier whose infrastructure it uses for its Canadian customers, of taking people's numbers offline and "holding the numbers hostage".

It argued Iristel's demands were met and had tried to port their numbers to a new carrier, but Iristel had disconnected numbers anyway.

But Iristel, which has been flooded by calls in recent days at NetTalk's urging, said NetTalk didn't take proper steps to port those numbers.

Canadian carrier says NetTalk owes $2M

The issue, according Iristel president Samer Bishay, is that NetTalk has not paid Iristel in more than a year and a half.

"We've tried to work with them even when they owed us around $2 million in arrears to try to not compromise the service, however they failed to comply," said Bishay.

"It's not an indefinite free service. And I think a year and a half was more than generous."

Bishay said his company technically owns the phone numbers of NetTalk's Canadian subscribers and he's speaking daily with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

No one will lose their number, assured Bishay.

"We're working diligently with the regulator to try to find a solution that basically parks these numbers with a reputable carrier that is able to carry through and not for this to happen again."

A statement from the CRTC said staff are "discussing the situation with the relevant telecom service providers," although the commission doesn't typically get involved in commercial disputes.

Complicated relationship between the two companies

The relationship between NetTalk in Florida and Iristel in Markham, Ont., is complicated.

Securities and Exchange Commission filings by NetTalk show Bishay was once president of NetTalk and on its board of directors.

Bishay explained in 2014 he put money into NetTalk to help the reseller restructure and bring Iristel into the retail side of the phone business. Part of the deal, said Bishay, was that he was to become president of NetTalk.

Bishay says before he could do anything as president, he was fired.

There's also a lawsuit currently filed against NetTalk by a third-party provder, which remains in the court system after more than two years.

VoIP issues

Fournier says the disconnection of his VoIP line raises new questions. Specifically, he doesn't know who to complain to in order to get his number back.

The CRTC is directing customers to contact NetTalk.

The company has replied to inquiries on its social media accounts, but its Canadian help line leads to a disconnected message. A call to the U.S. help line was never answered after 30 minutes on hold.

As for protecting Canadians who use VoIP services, the CRTC notes the Telecommunications Act was amended in 2014.

"The Commission now has the power to impose conditions directly on non-carriers (including VoIP resellers)," it wrote.

That includes a policy it released Jan. 14, which requires services such as VoIP resellers to follow rules about offering 911 service.