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A man speaks on a mobile phone outside Rogers Communications Inc.'s annual general meeting of shareholders in Toronto on April 22, 2014.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

A nationwide outage that left Rogers Communications Inc. customers without wireless service for over 12 hours on Monday has thrust network reliability into the spotlight.

As Canada grapples with a serious third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rogers users found themselves unable to text, make calls or access data on their wireless devices. That made it challenging for them to work, contact loved ones and access medical services, including booking vaccine appointments.

Rogers said the issue was caused by a software update by its supplier Ericsson, which caused devices to be disconnected from the network. Rogers and Ericsson are conducting an in-depth review to prevent similar issues from happening again, the company said in a statement.

The company said it will automatically apply a credit, equivalent to Monday’s wireless service fee, to customers’ bills. “We know our customers depend on us and yesterday we let them down – for this we are truly sorry,” Rogers said in a statement.

The company is working exclusively with Ericsson on its buildout of 5G wireless services. Its rivals, Telus Corp. and BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, have also inked deals with the Swedish supplier, but also plan to use gear from other vendors, such as Finland’s Nokia Corp. and South Korea’s Samsung.

Chad Kerychuk, a 46-year-old Vancouver resident, said the outage occurred just as he and his girlfriend found out they were now eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. The couple had difficulties booking their appointments, which requires a text-message confirmation – exacerbating an already stressful situation for Mr. Kerychuk, who suffers from asthma.

“I just kept running into all kinds of errors,” said Mr. Kerychuk, who has been a Rogers customer for more than 20 years. “Each incident like this is just one more reason to go, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’”

Rogers did not indicate how many of its customers were impacted by the outage. Between its three brands – Rogers, Fido and Chatr – the carrier had 10.9-million wireless subscribers as of the end of last year.

Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto-based consumer research consultancy Solutions Research Group, said it’s “exceedingly rare” for a national wireless network to experience such a lengthy outage.

The incident could result in customers switching to rival carriers Telus Corp. and BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, Mr. Yigit said. At any time, roughly 24 per cent of wireless customers are looking to save money by changing wireless providers, although not all of them follow through. For those whose contracts are about to expire, “this would be one more reason to consider another provider,” Mr. Yigit said in an e-mail.

Claims about network quality have become more prominent in marketing by Canada’s large telecoms, particularly amid the rollout of fifth-generation wireless technology, Mr. Yigit added. “This is a setback from that standpoint for Rogers for the credibility of those claims, at least for the short term.”

Laura Tribe, executive director of OpenMedia, an organization advocating for widespread inexpensive internet access, called it the most widespread outage in recent memory. “I think this is going to have a fairly long-lasting impact on Rogers’ relationship with some of its more frustrated customers, who may have seen this as the last straw,” she said.

Emergency services were also impacted by the outage. Rogers customers could still call 911, but since subscriber data was not being transmitted, if a caller hung up or was disconnected, staff at emergency call centers would not be able to phone them back.

Winnipeg Police Service constable Robert Carver said the situation “reinforced how important our cellular communications are throughout the country for emergency services.”

Rogers chief technology officer Jorge Fernandes said in an online post Monday that the software upgrade affected a piece of equipment in the central part of the carrier’s wireless network. “That led to intermittent congestion and service impacts for many customers across the country,” Mr. Fernandes said.

Victor Leung, director of the Wireless Networks and Mobile Systems laboratory at the University of British Columbia, said that although software updates for telecom networks are tested extensively before being implemented, circumstances in the real world can be different than in the lab.

“In the real world, you have equipment from different manufacturers all working together,” Mr. Leung said. “Current equipment has to work with older equipment ... or maybe the configuration of the equipment is something they did not catch in the testing process.”

The service disruption came amid a proposed takeover by Rogers of Western Canadian cable company Shaw Communications Inc. The deal, valued at $26-billion including debt, has faced criticism from consumer advocates and some telecoms as it would reduce the number of wireless players from four to three in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, where Shaw’s Freedom Mobile operates.

Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party, called the outage a “symptom of a larger problem.

“The Liberal govt must promote real competition instead of protecting the profits of telecoms giants like Rogers, Bell and Telus,” Mr. Singh wrote on Twitter.

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