By Divya Rajagopal and Ismail Shakil

TORONTO/OTTAWA (Reuters) -A major network outage at one of Canada’s biggest telecom operators shut banking, transport and government access for thousands on Friday after the second widespread disruption to hit Rogers Telecommunications Inc in a little over a year.

Nearly every facet of life was disrupted. Canadians who typically work from home crowded into cafes and public libraries that still offered internet access. Air Canada, the country’s largest airline, said its call center was affected. Retailers’ cashless pay systems went down, while banks reported issues with ATM services.

The interruption, which began around 4:30 a.m. ET (0830 GMT), added to concerns about competition in the industry and drew fresh criticism from customers about a lack of access to other providers.

“Today we have let you down. We are working to make this right as quickly as we can,” Rogers said in a statement. “Our technical teams are working to restore our services alongside our global technology partners, and are making progress.”

Rogers did not say when service might be restored.

With about 10 million wireless subscribers and 2.25 million retail internet subscribers, Rogers is the top provider in Ontario. Along with BCE Inc and Telus Corp, Rogers controls 90% of the market share in Canada.

Downdetector, which tracks outages by collating status reports from a number of sources, showed reports of outages starting from 4:30 a.m. ET, topping off at more than 20,000 users by 7 a.m. ET (1100 GMT). The reports dropped to around 7,700 by 2:30 p.m. ET (1830 GMT).

Canadian financial institutions and banks including Toronto-Dominion Bank and Bank Of Montreal said the outage had disrupted its services. Royal Bank of Canada said its ATM and online banking services were affected.

The disruption also made transport and flight bookings more difficult at the height of the summer travel season.

A spokesperson for Vancouver International airport, among Canada’s busiest, said travelers could not pay for parking, use terminal ATM machines or purchase items at airport retailers due to lost internet access.

Air Canada did not say how its contact center had been affected, but said it was working urgently to resolve the issue. Airlines in Canada, like those in Europe and the United States, have been experiencing high call volume due to flight cancellations and delays due to pandemic staffing shortages.

COMPETITION

Critics said the outage demonstrated a need for more competition in the telecom sector.

Earlier this year, Canada’s competition bureau blocked Rogers’ attempt to take over rival Shaw Communications in a C$20 billion deal, saying it would hamper competition in a country where telecom rates are some of the highest in the world. The merger is still before a tribunal awaiting a final verdict.

“Today’s outage illustrates the need for more independent competition that will drive more network investment so outages are far less likely,” said Anthony Lacavera, managing director of Globealive, an investment firm that had bid for a wireless provider involved in the Rogers/Shaw deal.

In April 2021, Rogers customers reported interruptions to wireless voice and data services for several hours before the company was able to restore operations.

Rogers blamed its April outage on a glitch tied to an Ericsson software upgrade. An Ericsson spokesperson, which provides cloud technology to Rogers’ 5G network, declined comment on Friday and referred all questions to Rogers.

Some government agencies had to cancel services after losing internet access, including Canada’s passport offices and the telecoms regulator. The Canada Revenue Agency, the country’s tax collection body, lost telephone service.

Canada’s Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said his team has been in contact with the company.

“We expressed how important it is that this matter be resolved as soon as possible and for the company to provide prompt and clear communication directly to those impacted,” he tweeted.

‘CASH WILL BE KING’

It was not clear how many individual Canadians were affected by the outage. The disruption resulted in some callers facing difficulty reaching emergency services via 911 calls, police across Canada said, including in Ottawa and Toronto, its largest city.

Toronto residents crowded into and around a midtown Starbucks coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi on an unaffected network.

“There’s tons of people here with their laptops just working away ferociously, the same as they would at home, because they’ve got no service at home,” said customer Ken Rosenstein.

In Ottawa’s downtown core on Friday, cafes including Tim Hortons were not accepting debit and credit cards, and turning away customers who did not have cash. Tim Hortons did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Michelle Wasylyshen, spokeswoman for the Retail Council of Canada, said that outages will vary from one retailer to the next: “Cash will most certainly be king at many stores today.”

(Reporting by Yuvraj Malik, Eva Matthews, Shubham Kalia and Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru; Katharine Jackson in Washington; Divya Rajagopal and Chris Helgren in Toronto; Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and Jonathan Oatis)