TORONTO--A little after 7 a.m. on Friday, July 16, a maintenance worker on the fourth floor of Bell Canada's central office on Simcoe Street dropped a tool into an electrical panel. The resulting short circuit caused an explosion, injuring one worker and starting a small fire that knocked out landline phones in Canada's financial capital, bringing business in the city's core grinding to a halt and interrupting calls across the country--except for cellular users.
The sight of cellular phone users in downtown Toronto enjoying service while others could only gnash their teeth appears to have reversed a common perception: For once, wireless networks looked more reliable than landlines.
Bell Mobility, the country's main wireless carrier, not only emerged unscathed, but learned lessons that may help it escape further trouble in future mishaps.
Though the precise cause of the accident remains under investigation, the explosion and fire cut power to the Simcoe Street office's switching equipment. Backup batteries kicked in, but Bell Canada's generator did not. Ironically, the generator failed to turn on automatically because most of the building was still receiving power. Meanwhile, the fire prevented Bell Canada's staff from switching it on manually. A later attempt to start it by shutting off the entire building's power also failed. By 10 a.m. Bell's downtown phone lines began to fail as the batteries ran down. By 11 a.m., the city's core was shut down. It wasn't until 3:30 p.m. that Bell Canada was able to get the generator started and restore service.
The accident affected Toronto's business core, including the Toronto Stock Exchange, which lost its main telecom lifelines. Also affected were long-distance calls routed through the Simcoe office, automatic teller machines, some Internet service providers and even private network links between the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa.
In contrast, Bell Mobility remained relatively unscathed, according to Robert Bruce, Bell Mobility's senior vice president of marketing. Why? The company doesn't rely on Bell Canada for its overall operations. When Simcoe went down, Bell Mobility didn't.
Another reason wireless networks stayed afloat is that Bell Mobility has overflow controls at Simcoe Street. When access is denied due to traffic, "we're routed through to another Bell Canada switch," said Mark Rausa, Bell Mobility's vice president of network engineering and operations.
Landline customers trying to call Bell Mobility handsets weren't so lucky. That's because any of their calls that normally went through Simcoe Street instead went nowhere.
Bell Mobility users, however, were able to function in downtown Toronto during the outage. "I was in the downtown core that day with my cellular phone in hand," Bruce said, "and it was a non-issue to make calls from my phone back out to my office."
As a result, network traffic measurably increased on July 16, clearly in response to the landline outtage.
Bell Mobility is considering automatically re-routing incoming landline calls, to preclude any future trouble.
By staying live when Bell Canada failed, Bell Mobility boosted its image in the eyes of its customers--and potential customers--in Canada's biggest market. That's "northern exposure."
Source: Bell Canada Network Failure A Boost For Bell Mobility, By James Careless, WirelessWeek - July 26, 1999