The CRTC is demanding Bell MTS submit monthly updates about the number of landline telephone outages in Winnipeg and explain what it is doing to fix them.
A letter sent to Philippe Gauvin, Bell MTS assistant general counsel, on Thursday, thanks Bell MTS for sending responses to its questions last month to help it "better understand the issues impacting the provision of reliable telecommunications services and the company’s efforts in resolving these issues."
While the information provided by Bell MTS is mostly deemed confidential and not to be shared with the public, the CRTC called it concerning and said it warrants further and continued data.
Fiona Gilfillan, executive director of the federal regulator’s telecommunications sector, said "given the ongoing nature of the issues," Bell MTS must provide monthly updates for the next five months.
In a statement, Bell MTS spokeswoman Morgan Shipley said the company would comply with the CRTC demand.
In a series of Free Press articles last month, numerous customers around Winnipeg detailed their landline outages — some of which had lasted weeks or even months.
The union for Bell MTS technicians has blamed the outages on years of job cuts and inadequate maintenance; it said the landline system had been in a "slow decline" since the former Tory government of Gary Filmon privatized the telephone company in 1997.
The CRTC, which said it was aware of the news stories, as well as complaints, stepped in. It issued an order on May 20 for Bell MTS to explain service-quality issues within seven days.
In Bell MTS’s response at the time, Gauvin told the CRTC problems with phone lines began before the company purchased MTS.
"Simply put, MTS’s practices involved very short-term solutions that left the network vulnerable to water penetration in the face of heavy rainfall," Gauvin wrote.
"Since acquiring MTS, we have invested more than a billion dollars in maintaining and improving networks in Manitoba… unfortunately, given the state of the copper network we inherited, this is not an issue that can be overhauled and corrected within the few years we have owned the network."
"This is not an issue that can be overhauled and corrected within the few years we have owned the network.” – Philippe Gauvin
Now, the CRTC says Bell MTS must hand over outage information on a monthly basis, including a list of all outages that last four hours or more in Winnipeg and affect five or more households.
The CRTC also wants the company to reveal the number of residential customers who experience service interruptions of between 24 hours to 1,440 hours or more, the number of complaints received from Winnipeg customers, and the number of service appointments dispatched.
As well, the CRTC wants, for every customer with an outage of 168 hours or more, details about what caused the outage, how the company resolved it, and how the company helped the telecommunications needs of its customers during the outage, including using 911, and when the outage was expected to be resolved.
In some cases, customers’ faulty landlines have called 911 and police have been sent to their home.
Gilfillan said Bell MTS has until June 13 to turn over the information for May, but after that the information has to be in by the second Monday of the month, or the next day if there is a statutory holiday.
Shipley said crews are working overtime to restore services. She said there has been a 15 per cent reduction in service requests in the last two weeks.
"Manitoba’s significant precipitation this winter did result in more copper cable repair requests than usual," she said.
“Manitoba’s significant precipitation this winter did result in more copper cable repair requests than usual.” – Morgan Shipley, Bell MTS
"Since 2017, we have invested over $330 million to maintain and improve the existing MTS wireline networks, including copper networks."
A former employee, who worked almost four decades at the company when it was a provincial Crown corporation as well as after it was privatized, said he’s not surprised the outages have been widespread.
"I think it could be fixed, but it would cost money and they don’t want to spend it on a redundant system when they are putting in a fibre system," he said, asking that he not be identified.
"They are just putting Band-Aids on copper cables."
He said "in the old days" when melting snow and springtime precipitation resulted in line outages, everyone had to work overtime for days until the system was fixed.
“They are just putting Band–Aids on copper cables.” – Former Bell MTS employee
"Now, about the time I left, they limited the amount of overtime and even had people fill out reports to justify the overtime they did," he said.
As for the CRTC demanding information from Bell MTS, he said such information was automatically sent to the commission every month when he worked there.
"If they were three months behind, they were in trouble," he said. "Now, the CRTC has to ask for it.
"Thankfully, I’m not there now."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.