Rogers outage sparks calls for telecoms to collaborate in emergencies. Will it work?

Click to play video: 'Industry minister, Rogers CEO meet due to outage'
Industry minister, Rogers CEO meet due to outage
WATCH: Industry minister, Rogers CEO meet due to outage – Jul 11, 2022

In the event a telecommunications company’s network goes down again – like Rogers’ did last Friday – the major players will be asked to work together to improve resiliency.

The order to collaborate in the event of an emergency, given from Technology and Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne on Monday, comes on the heels of the Rogers outage July 8 that saw millions of Canadians without internet and cellphone service for the majority of the day. Some regions are still reporting outages.

Canada’s big three telecommunications companies – Rogers, Bell and Telus – are ready to help each other out, the minister said, but getting a working agreement in place will be no easy task, says one expert.

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“It’s going to be quite a challenge for these telcos to come up with a comprehensive plan to resolve future network outages,” said Daniel Tsai, a lecturer of communication, culture, information and technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

“Some of this may be for political optics, but the reality is there’s a lot of steps that have to be taken before this can become reality.”

Telcos must enter formal agreement to improve resiliency: minister

Canada’s major telecom companies must enter into a formal agreement within 60 days of July 11 to take initial steps to improve resiliency, Champagne said.

The agreement would require the companies to explore how to implement emergency roaming if their networks go down again to allow emergency services to keep operating by using other providers, as well as a communication protocol to better inform the public and authorities, and to provide mutual assistance during outages.

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Click to play video: 'Rogers outage spawns lawsuit, questions about compensation, competition'
Rogers outage spawns lawsuit, questions about compensation, competition

It would be similar to what the U.S. Federal Communication Commission did on July 6 to improve network resiliency during disasters, Champagne said.

Bell and Telus were willing to help Rogers during its outage, Champagne told Global News on Monday, but Ottawa wants that “codified” so there will be a clear protocol if such a failure happens again. He said all of the telecom companies he spoke to agreed to enter into such an arrangement.

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But because Friday’s outage was an internal Rogers issue, there was nothing the other telecom giants could actually do in the moment to help, Champagne said — bringing into question whether mutual assistance would be useful in all cases.

“In practical terms, you have a whole bunch of logistical issues in terms of trying to communicate between different systems, having access to other users on a different network, so there’s a whole host of potential technical and even legal challenges,” Tsai said.

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“As well as compensation, because think of it this way: you’re giving access to your networks if you’re Bell or Telus to Rogers, who’s a fierce competitor of yours, and so how are you going to be compensated for that?”

Champagne spoke with the executives of Canada’s telecom companies for close to an hour on Monday, saying Friday’s outage was “unacceptable — full stop.”

Rogers has said the outage was due to a network system failure after a maintenance outage and that the “vast majority” of customers are back online.

The company will compensate customers in their next bill for the outage and the amount will be determined on a “pro-rated basis based on the duration of the outage,” according to CEO Tony Staffieri.

Telecoms must be able to work together in emergencies: experts

Tsai is unconvinced progress will be made in 60 days, but other experts like Keldon Bester believe Ottawa’s directive is a “good and sensible step.”

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“The signal there is that the minister is expecting something sort of above the level of competition. We need something that improves resilience and that might require agreements that they might not otherwise enter into,” said Bester, a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the co-founder of the Canadian Anti-Monopoly Project.

“The emergency of roaming, at the technical level, could manifest in a couple of different ways but fundamentally that means that if one network goes down, there is an agreement for other networks with overlapping coverage to cover those customers and ensure that they have continuous service.”

Bester added that while there may be technical questions around emergency roaming, he does believe that aspect is feasible.

“I don’t think that competition is so fierce that they wouldn’t be able to not enter into an agreement that would address these extensively on these emergency circumstances.”

Click to play video: 'Mother who couldn’t reach 911 calls for change following Rogers outage'
Mother who couldn’t reach 911 calls for change following Rogers outage

Had an agreement like the one Ottawa has asked for been in place on Friday, the impacts of the Rogers outage might have been different, said tech analyst Carmi Levy.

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“We still would have been inconvenienced, but maybe not as much as we were. We still might have been able to make 911 calls. Emergency services might not have been compromised to the same degree,” he said.

“This is a good thing going forward — we’re going to come up with creative solutions to something that, quite frankly, these companies had promised to maintain when they became as big as they are.… So whatever it takes, whatever it costs, this has to happen.”

Rogers outage also puts focus on telecom diversity

Friday’s outage has placed a spotlight on the vulnerability of Canada’s internet and cellphone network, which is dominated by the three major players.

There is also speculation the outage may affect Rogers’ chances of securing its proposed merger with Shaw Communications, a move that would further reduce the number of telecom companies in the country.

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If there were more networks in Canada, Friday’s outage might not have had that big of an impact, said Bester.

“Differentiated networks and differentiated ownership is an important part of competition and drives resilience in telecom markets,” he said.

“Competition in Canadian telecom markets is not functioning as we would like to, so the first thing to do is to say, let’s not go any further down this path and allow some of the few competitors that remain to be swallowed up by incumbent players.”

Champagne said Monday that Canada’s telecom regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), will be holding an inquiry into the outage to find its root cause and how Canada’s telecom networks’ resilience can be improved.

The CRTC on Tuesday ordered Rogers to respond to detailed questions and provide a comprehensive explanation regarding the national outage by July 22. The CRTC is requesting a detailed account from Rogers as to “why” and “how” the outage happened, as well as what measures Rogers is putting in place to prevent future outages.

“There needs to be an inquiry to get to the bottom of what exactly went wrong at Rogers so that the other competitors and Rogers can truly be accountable to Canadians, and make changes to their networks to make sure that this doesn’t happen across any of the networks,” Tsai said.

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— with files from Abigail Bimman and Eric Stober

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