Band-aid maintenance practices and an out-of-date copper telephone network Bell acquired from MTS are to blame for widespread landline outages in Winnipeg’s wet weather this season, the telecommunications giant told the CRTC.
Winnipeg’s copper telephone network is more vulnerable than most to rain and melting snow, wrote Bell Canada’s assistant general counsel Philippe Gauvin.
"Simply put, MTS’s practices involved very short term solutions that left the network vulnerable to water penetration in the face of heavy rainfall. Since acquiring MTS, we have invested more than a billion dollars in maintaining and improving networks in Manitoba," he stated, going on to write that the current state of the copper network can’t handle extreme weather.
"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," Gauvin wrote to the CRTC in a May 20 letter.
“Simply put, MTS’s practices involved very short term solutions that left the network vulnerable to water penetration in the face of heavy rainfall." – Philippe Gauvin
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission had given Bell MTS just seven days to send it "comprehensive answers, including rationale and any supporting information" about land line problems in Winnipeg. The commission became aware of problems lasting weeks and even years through customer complaints, news articles and other sources.
The CRTC, in a letter from Fiona Gilfillan, its executive director for the telecommunications sector, also wanted to know how long the outages were, number of customers affected, the location, cause of the outage, and steps taken to fix it and how long it took, as well as the total number of residential customers who had experienced land line problems since Jan. 1, 2021, of 24 hours or more up to 1,440 hours, as well as a list of all outages which lasted four or more hours and affected five or more households.
Bell MTS spokeswoman Morgan Shipley provided Gauvin’s letter to the Free Press Saturday.
In it, Gauvin wrote Bell MTS has been receiving an "unprecedented" number of service calls this spring, and stated the company understands the weather has caused problems for its customers.
“Regardless of the cause, we want to assure you and our customers that we are leveraging all of our resources to accelerate mitigation and restoration efforts within the city." – Philippe Gauvin
"Regardless of the cause, we want to assure you and our customers that we are leveraging all of our resources to accelerate mitigation and restoration efforts within the city. This includes significant increases on the staffing side, by bringing in additional workers from outside the city (and even the province) and making extensive use of overtime hours, and on the field side through preventative measures such as the bagging of approximately 200 pedestals in the Winnipeg area to minimize the potential for water damage."
Numerous Winnipeggers contacted the Free Press earlier this month to say their landlines were out of order. In one case, a senior was unable to contact Lifeline services. Customers lost connections to the Internet, burglar and fire alarms, and emergency services.
In more than one case, residents reported their out-of-service phone contacted 911 and caused Winnipeg police to show up at their door.
After a series of articles in the Free Press, the CRTC stepped in and issued the letter to Bell MTS assistant general counsel Philippe Gauvin, with a copy to BCE president and CEO Mirko Bibic, to get the information it wanted by May 20.
Church officials at St. George’s Anglican Church in Crescentwood said persistent service outages which left them not connected to their fire alarm or emergency services, was causing them to look at switching to Shaw.
On Thursday, the main telephone line at the church suddenly started working again, but church spokesman Andrew Thomson said it was too late.
"Our Parish Council voted on Wednesday evening to move forward with running cable in the building for phone lines and to improve internet capacity especially in our basement areas," Thomson said.
"We are not reconsidering our decision based on Bell MTS’s miraculous repairs… I have no doubt, given our unpredictable weather, that it is only a matter of time before new problems would have arisen. Their infrastructure needs to be upgraded."
Thomson said they have already signed a contract with Shaw and will pay any penalties Bell MTS requires.
Meanwhile, Bell MTS’ problems may be further afield than Winnipeg.
“Last year our landline was not functioning when we arrived at our cottage in May and was not repaired when we left in September." – Greg Shaw
Greg Shaw says he and other cottagers on Wekusko Lake, just a few minutes away from Snow Lake, have had land line problems for years there.
"Every time it would rain the entire subdivision would have their landlines quit functioning until the weather warmed up," he said.
"Last year our landline was not functioning when we arrived at our cottage in May and was not repaired when we left in September.
"We have never received an explanation or apology from MTS only excuses."
And Dustin Leader, of St. Francois Xavier, just a few minutes west of Winnipeg, said they’ve had intermittent problems with their land line since Christmas.
"It would ring once and if you didn’t get it then, it would go straight to static and you couldn’t hear anything - so we were always lunging for the phone," he said, noting other times the phone didn’t work at all.
But Leader said the phone suddenly began working again on Friday.
"I don’t know why this is happening because our lines are only five years old," he said. "MTS was great, but now that it is Bell MTS it is different - the service absolutely changed."
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.