Canada: Rogers faces anger, questions after hours-long outage

Canadian industry minister to meet with telecom leaders after hours-long Rogers service disruption affected millions.

The Rogers Building in Toronto, Canada
Rogers Communications has about 10 million wireless subscribers and 2.25 million retail internet subscribers, and along with Bell Canada and Telus, it is one of three companies that control 90 percent of the market [File: Chris Helgren/Reuters]

Canadian telecom giant Rogers Communications is under pressure to answer for a network outage that left millions of people across Canada without mobile phone and internet access for several hours, in an incident that also has drawn attention to a lack of competition in the industry.

Rogers said on Saturday morning that service had been restored to “a vast majority” of its customers, blaming the outage that began in the early hours of Friday on a router malfunction after maintenance work.

“We now believe we’ve narrowed the cause to a network system failure following a maintenance update in our core network, which caused some of our routers to malfunction early Friday morning,” Rogers Chief Executive Officer Tony Staffieri said in a statement.

But some Rogers customers told local media that they had no service for several days, spurring frustration and calls for accountability.

The outage forced many Canadians to go to cafes or public libraries to get Wi-Fi on Friday, while the banking, healthcare, transportation, government and emergency service sectors, among others, also were affected by the disruption.

Canada’s federal industry minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, said on Sunday that he would meet with Staffieri and other telecom leaders to discuss improving “the reliability of networks across Canada” following the Rogers outage.

He called the failure “unacceptable” and an example of “why quality, diversity & reliability are key to our telecom network”.

Staffieri, the Rogers CEO, said in an open letter on Friday that the company “will make all the changes necessary to ensure that in the future we meet and exceed your expectations for our networks” and would apply a credit to affected customers.

But some critics say that isn’t enough. Many have argued the outage demonstrates a need for more competition in Canada’s telecom industry; Canadian customers pay some of the highest mobile phone and internet prices in the world as only a few companies control most of the market.

Rogers, which has about 10 million wireless subscribers and 2.25 million retail internet subscribers, is the leading service provider in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. Rogers, Bell Canada and Telus control 90 percent of the market in the country.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a non-profit group based in Ottawa, sent a letter (PDF) to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on Friday requesting an immediate inquiry into the nationwide outage.

The centre also requested that the CRTC examine whether telecom providers in Canada “should be required to meet a baseline of emergency planning, refund requirements, notice and transparency and other consumer protections” to operate in the country.

“We do not believe that we are required to justify the seriousness of the disruption faced by consumers and citizens regarding the present outage, which is manifest, and which is particularly egregious in light of a previously reported outage by Rogers in 2021 and outages recently experienced in Canada’s north,” the letter reads.

In April last year, thousands of Rogers customers reported intermittent interruptions to wireless voice and data services for several hours before the company was able to restore full operations to its network.

Friday’s disruption also came two days after Rogers held talks with Canada’s antitrust authority to discuss possible remedies to its blocked takeover of rival Shaw Communications.

Canada’s competition bureau blocked the deal earlier this year, saying it would hamper competition; the merger still awaits a final verdict.

On Monday, Canadian payment gateway Interac said it was adding another network provider to its system after the Rogers outage left millions of Canadians locked out of online payments. “We are adding a supplier [besides Rogers] to strengthen our existing network redundancy so Canadians can continue to rely on Interac daily,” Interac said in a statement.

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, said the Rogers outage “must be a wake-up for a government that has been asleep on digital policy”.

“Canadians deserve answers that explain not only how this happened, but how we find ourselves in a position where malfunctioning routers at one company cause a nationwide payment system to go down, government services to be taken offline, and emergency services to be rendered inaccessible,” Geist wrote in a blog post on Sunday.

He urged the CRTC to launch a process to examine the disruption as well as for a parliamentary hearing to be held on the broader issues at play, “since this is a matter that requires both regulatory and political response”.

“There is no need to wait: these hearings must happen this month with the goal of identifying the scope and source of the problem along with potential policies that might mitigate future harms,” he wrote.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies