August 8, 2017 12:38 pm
Updated: August 8, 2017 3:38 pm

Experts raise concern after latest cellular network outage in Atlantic Canada

Cellphone service went down in a large part of Atlantic Canada on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017.

Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press/File
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Last Friday’s Bell Aliant outage in many parts of Atlantic Canada has dialed up concerns among experts about the security of the region’s telecommunications system.

Eamon Hoey, a management consultant in Toronto who has worked in the field for over four decades, said in an interview the breakdown of Bell’s system due to cuts in crucial fibre optic links raises questions about whether there is sufficient backup.

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“We need better networks. We need more robust networks. This case in the Atlantic provinces suggests we don’t have it,” he said on Monday from his home in Toronto.

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The breakdown affected emergency services in some parts of the region, caused widespread cellular telephone outages on Telus, Bell, Virgin and Koodo, and also interrupted internet and some land line services for about four hours, beginning late Friday morning. The Rogers and Eastlink networks continued to operate.

Emergency measures agencies in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick said Tuesday they will be in talks with Bell following the outage.

In 2011, a cut in a Bell fibre optic line in northern New Brunswick led to service outages through many parts of that province for about three hours.

Hoey says the region’s network is heavily reliant on Bell’s fibre optic system, and said the CRTC should consider the need for more backup methods.

The veteran consultant also says he believes the federal regulator should be collecting and posting detailed information on all similar outages around the country.

“How effective are the carriers in keeping their networks up and running? We have no idea,” he said.

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Michael Cada, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Dalhousie University, also said in an interview that the outage suggests a second network, or a backup method such as a satellite system, should be available.

“There should always be a backup plan. There should always be somebody else to ideally compete and if not compete to have an alternative route,” said Cada, whose research interests include fibre optic technologies.

“In the future, I would try to allow more competition.”

Bell (TSX:BCE) has issued a short statement saying it is investigating “an extraordinary situation,” and that there were multiple breaks in the system caused by a third-party contractor.

The company has declined to provide an official for an interview, though it confirmed in an email on Tuesday the cuts occurred in Drummondville, in eastern Quebec, and in Richibucto, N.B. Telus was unavailable for comment.

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Greg MacCallum, director of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, said in an interview that in his province the outage meant that when people called 911 their location wasn’t coming up, though regular voice service was working for people able to call in.

Firefighters were recalled to their stations and ambulances were stationed around several cities as a precaution, he added.

MacCallum said he will be having conversations with Bell to learn more about future contingency plans for similar outages.

“They have a primary and alternate fibre system that runs into Atlantic Canada and this is a perfect combination of bad circumstances, where one broke and they were using the alternate and it got broken,” he said.

“Our critical infrastructure manager is going to be conducting a review … on what Bell’s contingency plan is going forward here to address this kind of circumstance going forward,” he said.

Celine Legault, a spokeswoman for the CRTC, confirmed that the federal regulator doesn’t retain reports on all service outages.

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However, Legault said that a 2016 decision by the regulator determined Canadian 911 networks “are reliable and resilient.”

“Following this decision, the CRTC is establishing requirements regarding notification of 911 service outages. The CRTC also requires that all 911 network providers file with it an annual report on 911 network outages that cause 911 service outages,” she wrote in an email.

The 911 systems continued to operate in Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia. A spokeswoman for P.E.I.’s Public Safety Department also said the 911 features on the Bell and Telus cell phones continued to work.

Paul Mason, the acting director of the Emergency Measures Organization in Nova Scotia, said the outage is a concern for his organization.

“We’ve had some preliminary discussions with Bell … and we’ll have further discussions,” he said.

Mason said the last major telecommunication incident in Nova Scotia was in December 2015, when a workplace mishap in Halifax resulted in an outage in the capital.

© 2017 The Canadian Press

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