Members of Parliament grilled Rogers Communications Inc. RCI-B-T CEO Tony Staffieri on Monday about the widespread outage that left millions of customers without wireless, internet and home phone service earlier this month, as the company sought to assure Ottawa it’s taking steps to bolster the resiliency of its network.
Mr. Staffieri and the company’s newly appointed chief technology officer, Ron McKenzie, faced tough questions and criticism during a public hearing into what regulators described as an unprecedented outage.
The hearing was held by the House of Commons committee on industry and technology, which is made up of MPs from all four major federal parties. It was Mr. McKenzie’s first public appearance after taking over the job of chief technology officer from Jorge Fernandes last week.
Ian Scott, the chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), called the company’s delayed communication with its customers during the July 8 outage “unacceptable,” while Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne criticized Mr. Staffieri for not reaching out to him.
“It should not be up to the minister to chase the CEO of a major telecom in Canada when something like that happens; it should rather be the other way around,” said Mr. Champagne, who was in Tokyo, Japan, on government business at the time of the outage.
The Toronto-based telecom took about four hours to acknowledge the situation on social media and all day to resolve the outage, although intermittent issues continued throughout the weekend.
The problem started shortly before 5 a.m. EST, when a coding error was introduced that overwhelmed the company’s routers, causing the network core to shut down. The service disruption left Rogers customers unable to call 911 or receive emergency alerts, and affected the Interac debit system, resulting in lost sales for many businesses.
Mr. Champagne said he was first informed of the outage in the late afternoon of July 8, Tokyo time. “A few hours later, I received an update indicating that the outage now seemed more serious than originally anticipated. I immediately picked up the phone, not only to contact the CEO of Rogers, but also the CEOs of TELUS and Bell to see how they could possibly help.”
Mr. Staffieri said he regrets not contacting government officials sooner. “We were focused on the solution and getting our customers up and running. But nonetheless, those communications should have happened sooner for an important stakeholder such as the government,” he said.
Mr. Staffieri has vowed to make changes and investments to prevent similar outages in the future, including separating the telecom’s wireless and cable network cores, a measure that he said will cost at least $250-million.
“To be frank, this added layer of protection will be expensive,” Mr. Staffieri told the committee, “but we know it is the right thing to do.”
Like many of its peers, Rogers currently processes all voice, wireless data, internet and television traffic through one common network core, which is essentially the network’s brain. Separating the wireless and cable networks will ensure that a similar outage won’t knock down all of the company’s services simultaneously, Rogers executives explained.
The company has also pledged to invest more in testing, oversight and artificial intelligence to improve the reliability of its networks.
Monday’s hearing occurred against the backdrop of a regulatory review of Rogers’s contested $26-billion takeover of Shaw Communications Inc. The Competition Bureau is attempting to block the merger, arguing that it will result in poorer service and higher prices for cellphone customers. Rogers has struck a deal to sell Shaw’s Freedom Mobile to Quebecor Inc. for $2.85-billion in an attempt to address those concerns.
Consumer advocates and telecom researchers who appeared in front of the committee on Monday urged regulators to reject the merger of Canada’s two largest cable networks, arguing that the outage has demonstrated the pitfalls of having too few competitors in the sector. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith pressed Mr. Staffieri on whether the takeover is dead, while Conservative MP Tracy Gray questioned whether Mr. Staffieri should get to keep his job.
“I’m accountable to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Staffieri said in response to Ms. Gray. He also told the committee the merger with Shaw would speed up Rogers’s efforts to separate its network cores.
“Our intent is to keep the Shaw cable network as independent,” Mr. Staffieri said. The Toronto-based telecom would combine its own cable network with Shaw’s, and keep that combined cable network separate from the Rogers wireless network, Mr. Staffieri said.
“In terms of our plan, the Shaw transaction will allow us to execute on that ability to separate those [networks] in half the time than it otherwise would,” he said.
Mr. Champagne’s ministry is one of two regulatory bodies that is still reviewing the takeover. Mr. Champagne has instructed Canada’s wireless carriers to implement a formal framework to assist each other during network outages, provide customers with emergency roaming on their networks and follow a communications protocol to ensure consumers are kept informed.
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