Rogers Wireless customers reported widespread disruptions with voice and text messaging services on Wednesday evening. The outage also affected Rogers’ Fido and Chatr customers — more than nine million people in total.
Police in Toronto, Calgary and other communities urged those affected by the outage to use a landline or another cellphone provider to call 911 in the event of an emergency. The City of Calgary asked those without cellphone service to use the landline of a neighbour or a nearby store if they needed to call 911 during the disruption.
But landlines are becoming less common, leaving more people high and dry when a wireless outage strikes. According to the most recent Statistics Canada figures, from 2010, 13 per cent of Canadian households used wireless phones exclusively, up from eight per cent in 2008. Among the 18-to-24 age group, half of Canadian households were using cellphones alone, up from 34 per cent in 2008.
Payphones are similarly disappearing. The CRTC says there were 95,000 payphones in Canada in 2008, but that number had dropped to 70,000 by the end of 2012.
'Technological time bomb'
Although widespread cellphone outages aren't all that common, technology analyst Carmi Levy said they’re difficult to predict and can strike any carrier.
“The challenge is that wireless companies are constantly expanding their networks, increasing the breadth and scope of the services they provide,” he said. “They’re constantly pushing the envelope in terms of new technology. So they may resolve the problem this time, but there may be another technological time bomb lurking that they can’t foresee.”
On Thursday, Rogers Communications' chief technology officer, Bob Berner, said the service disruption was caused by a software problem. The company's CEO, Nadir Mohamed, has apologized for the outage and pledged to give customers credit for one day of service.
Lance Valcour, executive director of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group, which lobbies government to improve the “public safety communications” used by first responders, described cellphone outages as “a major threat to public safety.”
Valcour said he believes wireless networks could be engineered to be more reliable when it comes to accessing emergency services, but the cost of doing so “would be prohibitive” for telecommunications firms.
CRTC report identifies several problems
The CRTC is looking into ways to improve the country’s emergency calling system. It released a report on Thursday saying that Canada's patchwork system of 911 services needs to accurately locate cellphone callers before text messaging or social media can be used to call for help.
It's not clear how many 911 calls are made in Canada each year, which the report called "unacceptable." And the location of mobile phone callers isn't always provided to 911 service. When it is provided, the report said, that information can be an approximation to the closest cellphone tower.
"Simply put, if they do not know where you are, they do not know where to send help," the report said. "Inaccurate information arising from cell towers is also a significant problem in determining where callers are."
The report noted that there is no single authority responsible for 911 services, said its author Timothy Denton, whose term as a CRTC commissioner ended this year.