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Busy signals, dropped calls, but no major outage as Canadians strain telecom system

TORONTO — Despite the sudden, recent shift in how millions of Canadians are doing their work because of the COVID-19 crisis, it seems most parts of the communications system were up to the challenge in the first week of widespread social distancing.

There have been many cellphone calls that don't get through on the first try and some high-traffic, toll-free numbers have been busy at peak times, but none of the major cable, phone or internet networks have reported a widespread outage.

Ed Antecol, a 30-year veteran of the telecom industry who works in the Toronto area for COMsolve Inc., said Friday he was amazed at how stable the system has been given how many people have been working remotely. 

"I was pretty impressed," Antecol said.

That's not to say there weren't problems, but Antecol — whose career as a telecommunications professional has included setting up 1-800 numbers — said most seemed to be at specific bottlenecks.

For customer service call centres and conference call services that provide toll-free numbers, such bottlenecks typically arise either because there aren't enough agents to answer calls or there aren't enough physical phone lines, he said.

"It's (more) rare to see a bottleneck in the telephone companies' networks themselves, although that is technically possible," Antecol said.

Individual cellphone towers can be another pinch point, since people working from home are often using mobile phones rather than landlines and more organizations are holding long conference calls that tie up wireless channels.

Antecol himself had to try several times before one mobile call would go through on Thursday.

"I would dial and suddenly my cell phone would show that it's hung up," he said.

On the other hand, once Antecol got through, he was on conference calls for hours at a time as more than 50 COMsolve employees operated the business from their homes.

"Given the amount of conference calls we had all day, and that (was) probably replicated across the entire city, I was actually amazed that things were as stable as they were," Antecol said.

Even outside of Canada's major centres, there's evidence that service providers were able to cope with huge increases in internet traffic.

Aterlo Networks Inc. of Waterloo, Ont., which operates as Preseem, found internet traffic in rural areas of Ontario and Quebec was up nearly 20 per cent on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week compared with the same days the previous week. 

The company, which works with hundreds of wireless internet service providers in the United States and Canada, found that during the peak hour from noon to 1 p.m. traffic was up 51 per cent.

The load was up at least 30 per cent for each hour from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. — business hours — and nearly 10 per cent during evenings from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Atlero's director of marketing, Harneet Singh, said there was no evidence of unusual network disruptions.

"If that happened, we would see it," Singh said.

Similarly, the country's largest integrated telecommunications and media company reported extremely high traffic volumes — with only brief congestion during surges.

Home internet traffic rose the most  — up to 60 per cent higher than usual during the day and up to 20 per cent higher at night, said Bell spokesman Marc Choma.

Bell Media, which owns the CTV television network, found local news viewership was up about 40 per cent and national news up 73 per cent.

"Land-line voice is in good shape but customers may encounter brief congestion when we have daytime surges in usage," Choma wrote in an email.

He predicted there would be improvement as Bell adds capacity to its networks.

"Our wireless network is performing well and we are working with other mobile providers to increase inter-carrier capacity," Choma wrote. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2020.

David Paddon, The Canadian Press

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