Telecommunications

French telephone operator launches probe into network outage following deaths

A fifth of people calling emergency services on Wednesday couldn't get through
A fifth of people calling emergency services on Wednesday couldn't get through AP - Ludovic Marin

Stephane Richard, the head of France's biggest telecoms operator Orange, has launched an internal inquiry into an emergency line breakdown on Wednesday after three or four deaths were recorded during the outage.

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Conclusions from the report should arrive within seven days’ time, Orange announced Friday, adding that its teams remained mobilised and would continue to scrutinise the situation closely.

The multinational telecoms group, in which the French state is a majority shareholder, said that the network was now operating normally again.

Health minister Olivier Veran said it was too soon to say whether there was any link between the outage and three to four deaths recorded during the period.

France has separate numbers for ambulances, police and fire services -- 15, 17, and 18 -- as well as a universal European emergency number, 112.

Orange said it had suffered a problem with a router that receives calls to these shortened emergency numbers and transfers them to local call centres, which use regular 10-digit phone lines.

The disruption began on Wednesday afternoon and lasted through to around midnight.

During that time around a fifth of all people making calls to emergency medical, police or fire numbers could not get through or had their calls cut off mid-conversation.

Among them was a person suffering from a cardiovascular disease in Brittany. 

The death of a two-year old toddler in the Vendee region is also under investigation.

Cause yet to be defined

On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron said he was "very concerned" by the outage.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin described it as “serious and unacceptable” and Orange’s CEO Stephane Richard was summoned to explain the breakdown.

Richard offered his “deepest apologies” but said the cause of the outage was still unclear.

“We have no indication which would lead us to think that it could be an external attack,” he told TF1 television, while adding it could not be linked to a human error nor to a maintenance issue. The cause was most likely “software failure in critical network infrastructure”.

The French government and state bank Bpifrance together hold around 23 percent of Orange's share capital, making the French state Orange's biggest individual shareholder.

The incident has put CEO Richard under political pressure and not for the first time.

In December 2019, the former chief and several other executives of the group - then known as France Telecom - were handed four-month jail terms and fines relating to a campaign of employee harassment blamed for a spate of suicides.

(With Reuters)

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