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Telecom spat leaves thousands of Canadians without full phone service

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A dispute over unpaid charges claimed by a supplier has left thousands of Canadian customers of the NetTalk Internet phone service without the ability to receive calls except from fellow NetTalk subscribers. Inc. is a Florida-based company that began selling a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone service in Canada in January, 2013, offering customers the ability to "port" their existing landline phone numbers to its service.

In order to access Canadian phone numbers, VoIP providers must work with regulated telecom providers that connect into the public switched telephone network.

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Markham, Ont.-based Iristel Inc. has been providing that service for NetTalk but alleges the U.S. company owes it $2-million in unpaid bills. On Dec. 30, Iristel sent NetTalk a notice that it was planning to disconnect the numbers by Jan. 15 and warned NetTalk to port the numbers to another Canadian provider before that time.

Iristel and NetTalk differ on whether those arrangements were properly made before that date, but for several days, NetTalk customers in Canada have not been able to receive incoming calls from non-NetTalk customers.

The companies, or individuals from the two companies, are also involved in separate litigation against each other, according to Iristel CEO Samer Bishay, and the situation over the Canadian phone numbers has escalated into both sides publicly trading accusations through Facebook and website posts.

Iristel said about 75,000 Canadian customers have been affected, but in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday, NetTalk says "approximately 27,000 is the accurate number."

"The money they say we owe is being disputed and currently being litigated," NetTalk said in the e-mail, which was signed by chief operating officer Nick Kyriakides. NetTalk also emphasized that its customers have had unimpeded access to 911 services. It says it plans to continue offering the service in Canada.

In an e-mail to customers on Sunday, NetTalk said outgoing calls have not been affected and that it is trying to resolve the situation.

"I want to assure Canadian customers that they're not going to lose their numbers. I just ask for patience," Iristel's Mr. Bishay said in an interview Tuesday.

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Iristel said in a statement on its website Tuesday that NetTalk customers will be able to port their phone numbers to a "reputable Canadian service provider" once a solution sanctioned by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is worked out. It said it hopes to resolve the situation "within days, not weeks."

Patricia Valladao, a spokeswoman for the CRTC, said the telecom regulator is aware of the "contractual dispute" between NetTalk and Iristel as well as the concerns of NetTalk customers.

"The CRTC does not generally get involved in contractual disputes between parties. However, we have reached out to the relevant parties in order to facilitate discussion so they may be able to limit the disruption that has impacted Canadian consumers in the past few days," Ms. Valladao said in an e-mailed statement on Wednesday.

She said the CRTC has taken steps in the past to make it easier for customers to switch service providers and keep their phone numbers when they do.

"However, the customer does not 'own' a number and there are no guarantees a number can be retained by a customer as there are circumstances in which a phone number may not be transferred to a new service provider," she added. "Impacted customers should contact NetTalk to discuss their existing service or contact an alternative service provider if they wish switch providers. We encourage them to mention to the new provider that they would like to keep their current number."

There were 694,000 VoIP telephone lines in Canada – representing about 4 per cent of all local telephone lines – in 2014, according to the CRTC. Dozens of VoIP providers, such as MagicJack, Ooma and Vonage, operate in Canada and typically offer service at a low annual rate.

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Editor's note: This story was updated on Jan. 20 to include comments from the CRTC.

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About the Author
Telecom Reporter

Christine Dobby covers the Canadian telecom industry for The Globe and Mail. Before joining the Globe in May 2014 she reported for the Financial Post for three years, most recently writing about telecom and media. She has also reported for the Toronto Star and New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. More


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