Telcos say: Don’t get hung-up on network outage rules

Wireless carriers in the United States are criticizing a proposal to have them report as do wireline carriers serious network outages to federal regulators, while Canadian carriers say they have the wherewithal to deal with such matters themselves.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission seems to agree.

“”We recognize that these things can happen,”” said Denis Carmel, spokesman for the CRTC, referring to the possibility of network outages from time to time. “”We assume that the industry players don’t wish that to happen. Therefore we don’t see a situation to force us to get involved.””

The U.S., however, has taken a more proactive approach as it relates to requiring public outage reports. Since the early 1990s, wireline operators have had to report to the Federal Communications Commission regarding how serious network outages occurred and how they could be prevented in the future. But since the rules only apply to wireline providers, wireless operators have been reporting network outages on a voluntary basis, providing what the FCC said has been mostly information of limited value.

So while wireline providers must submit reports if their networks go down, their Canadian cousins simply have to get their networks back up and running. When vandalism to a pair of its fibre-optic cables interrupted phone and Internet services for some 300,000 customers in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, for example, Aliant addressed the issue without having to report to the CRTC, confirmed Carmel. Aliant was unavailable for comment.

With 24/7 network monitoring, 24/7 on-call engineering and IT support people, multiple redundant switch centres, backup systems, batteries, generators and more, Telus Mobility can deal with whatever problems arise, according to Julia Quinton, a spokesperson at Telus Mobility. She stressed that failing to take the proper precautions just doesn’t make good business sense.

“”We have 3.5 million clients, and we really have a competitive market, and they’re pretty easy to churn,”” she said. “”If there ever is any network outage, we’ll have 3.5 million clients calling client care. We have everything from consumers to corporate enterprises to government. We have public safety users like police forces. All in all, they all really rely on dependable wireless service.

“”The other big thing is: when was the last time we ever really had a big network outage? There’s really none that I can think of except for the North American outage last year. But even in that situation, backup power systems allowed us to operate through pretty much most of that emergency unscathed.””

Telus Mobility, which is headquartered in Scarborough, Ont., isn’t the only wireless services provider questioning the need to introduce mandatory reporting to the Canadian telecommunications landscape. Microcell, based in Montreal, Que., doesn’t require outside intervention, said company officials, because it has in place safeguards to handle emergencies.

“”We are members of certain organizations . . . where we sit down with members of government and other telecommunications companies to restore telecommunications services in the event of a disaster,”” said Matt Gibson, manager of Microcell’s national control centre. “”Normally we use that (procedure) as well to do post mortems on our major network failures, notably the hydro outage in eastern Ontario and the ice storm in Quebec.””

There is also a common sense aspect that Microcell, which as of March 31, 2004, provided wireless services to close to 1,258,000 retail subscribers, has been mindful of, added Jocelyn Lazure, director of network operations and national control centre, eastern region, at Microcell.

“”Our network has redundancy not only in terms of equipment but in terms of location as well,”” he said. “”So we’re fully secure in that sense.””

Earl Hoeg, director of spectrum management operations at Industry Canada, the federal department responsible for granting licences for using the spectrum, said that the prevailing market forces are strong enough to ensure that wireless companies continue to provide quality service. But he added that there are procedures in place to amend license conditions if the marketplace situation were to ever require intervention.

“”If the department felt that it was in the public interest to amend the conditions of licence for the wireless licensees, the department does have the opportunity to issue a consultation for the amendment to those existing conditions of license,”” said Hoeg. “”And we’d work with our licensees in establishing any appropriate amendments that were in the public interest.””

American wireless carriers may be facing mandatory reporting compliance, but outages in the U.S. have little impact in Canada. Gibson from Microcell said the level of interconnection is minimal.

“”There’s a small (level) of connectivity…where roaming agreements are signed and roaming traffic is carried,”” he said. “”It would allow a Microcell subscriber to effectively use infrastructure in the U.S. The signalling links that are put between the two countries are fully redundant with different paths so that in the event of a network outage on the U.S. side, Microcell subscribers should still be able to use those functions as long as there’s a signal available.””

Michael Janigan, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, Ont., said that in terms of reliability, some American providers simply aren’t in the same league as their Canadian counterparts.

“”There’s no comparison to the reliability and the scrutiny that CRTC affords over the local service companies compared to the United States,”” he said. “”I mean, you have US West constantly getting disciplined by the FCC for basically abandoning service.””

U.S. wireline providers and the Department of Homeland Security have argued that mandatory reports could, if they were to fall into the wrong hands, provide terrorists with the information needed to damage the national communications system. The DHS said it wants future reports filed with one of its infrastructure monitoring bodies and kept out of the public domain.

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