Ottawa says it will require Canada’s telecom companies to reach formal agreements within 60 days to provide mutual assistance to each other during outages, offer emergency roaming service for their rivals’ customers and come up with a clear plan for how to communicate with the public about network failures.
Innovation, science and industry minister François-Philippe Champagne announced the government’s demands Monday afternoon after a telephone meeting with the CEOs of the country’s biggest telecom companies following a widespread outage of Rogers service.
“Let’s be clear, this failure was a failure of Rogers and their system,” said Champagne, who added that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will launch a formal inquiry into the disruption.
Rogers’ internet, cable and wireless networks were all down on Friday, knocking out payment services, 911 availability and connectivity for more than 12 million customers, including subscribers to mobile brands Fido, Chatr and Cityfone.
The outage, which lasted well into the weekend for many users, was caused by a maintenance update to Rogers’ core network, CEO Tony Staffieri said in a statement Saturday and in emails to customers on Sunday morning.
It caused days of chaos for some and prompted Champagne to demand a meeting with the CEOs of Rogers, Bell, Telus, Shaw, Quebecor, SaskTel and Eastlink. He told reporters Monday that he spent more than an hour speaking with the business leaders and that they “agreed unanimously” to his requests.
“I’ve demanded that they make immediate initial steps to improve the resiliency of our networks,” Champagne said, adding that the CRTC process could lead to additional changes. “Obviously we need to do a much deeper dive to really understand the root cause of what happened.”
The minister said the telecoms already have informal agreements to help each other in emergencies and were in fact willing to assist Rogers.
“What happened over the weekend would go beyond what we have seen or the type of assistance that could be offered,” Champagne said when asked whether a formal agreement would even have helped.
But he suggested that it couldn’t hurt to be more prepared in the future. “On the other hand, we don’t know the nature of any future failure that we could have in our core network.”
In a statement Monday evening, Staffieri apologized again to frustrated Canadians and said he was grateful for the government’s assistance throughout the outage. He said the company is “united” with the country’s other telecoms.
“We are all committed to solutions to protect Canadians from serious outages. In this spirit we will continue to work together to enhance the reliability of each of our networks moving forward, including through formal mutual support agreements and other measures proposed by the Minister today.”
In separate statements Monday, Telus CEO Darren Entwistle said “our team is ready and willing to work” with the minister while Bell CEO Mirko Bibic said “recent events” highlighted the importance of his own company’s network investments.
The minister’s announcement came amid demands for better consumer protection, questions about what exactly happened and some skepticism about whether the government and CRTC would take decisive action to hold Rogers and the industry more broadly to account.
“This government in particular over the last couple of years has really shied away from an aggressive approach when it comes to the telecom companies,” Michael Geist, the Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, said earlier in the day. “Perhaps this (outage) will change things.”
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Geist said the sector needs an automatic approach to compensation for outages that goes beyond a pro-rated credit for the time that customers are out of service and recognizes the outsized impact of being offline.
Small businesses, for example, couldn’t process online orders, use delivery apps or process transactions on Friday, said Dan Kelly, the head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which is calling for small business owners to be given a free month of Rogers service.
“I would hope that (the outage) does become a wake-up call that the compensation structure for outages is close to nonexistent. And to the extent to which it exists, it’s wholly inadequate,” Geist said.
“That’s partially on the government and that’s partially on a CRTC that has been fairly comfortable in recent years giving a bit of a free pass to the telecom companies.”
Former CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais also slammed the CRTC’s current leadership for being too easy on the industry’s biggest companies. (His successor as chair, Ian Scott, is due to be replaced by the federal government in September when his five-year term expires.)
“I don’t think the CRTC is the body to run such an inquiry,” Blais wrote in a LinkedIn post. “They have become captive to the big players.”
CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao said Monday the commission “supports the Minister’s announcement made today.” She did not comment on the timing or format of the inquiry but said the CRTC would have more to say on Tuesday.
“They need to do it while the evidence is still fresh in people’s minds over at Rogers,” said John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), who made a formal request for the CRTC to launch an inquiry on Friday.
Lawford noted this incident came just over a year after Rogers had a major wireless outage and issued similar reassurances and promises about compensation. “Just having Rogers’ word that, ‘Don’t worry everybody, we’re on it,’ is not good enough.”
Champagne said he was “very clear with the CEO of Rogers that I expect Rogers to fully and proactively compensate their customers. We’ll be watching what they do.”
Rogers also faced criticism for failing to quickly inform customers about the outage or provide a prompt timeline for the return of service, and Champagne said many Canadians “felt the information was wanting.”
More details would come in the formal agreements, but he said, “The spirit is about doing better to inform consumers, small businesses and authorities when things like that happen.”
Rogers is trying to acquire Shaw in a $26-billion deal and some critics have said the outage illustrates the risks of too much consolidation in the industry and is another reason for the government to block the transaction.
Asked about the deal Monday, Champagne said the government has made affordability and competition in the telecom sector a priority but the focus on Monday was network resiliency.
With files from The Canadian Press
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