Summary:

Ouch. France’s top mobile network, Orange, has been suffering from a bug that left a huge chunk of users unable to access their voicemail — just a few weeks after a software glitch rendered vast parts of the company’s network unusable.

Angry man yelling in to mobile phone
photo: Shutterstock / Lisa F. Young

It’s just a couple of months since French mobile network Orange suffered a huge, embarrassing outage that left many of its 26 million customers unable to make any calls for nearly an entire day. Now, just when the company thought it was getting over the damage that caused, it’s been hit with another bug.

On Wednesday afternoon, around 800,000 customers lost access to their voicemail as the result of what it says was an application error that has now been resolved. The outage, which seemed to hit users all around the country, lasted for four hours — far less than July’s more-than-12-hour collapse — and talking to Le Figaro, a company spokesman said it was now, finally, fixed.

The dysfunction related to a small glitch on the Orange network. “Our technicians have made an update to one of our messaging platforms, which created a malfunction. The situation returned to normal around 6pm, ” says a spokesman for Orange.

These are testing times for the country’s No1 network, which is not only under pressure from rivals but has also been trying to endure a corporate scandal at parent company France Telecom that has seen a number of senior executives indicted over the deaths of workers.

But from a technical perspective, it’s not the only one to be suffering from software and network issues.

As Kevin Fitchard pointed out here recently, a run of problems have happened to networks across the world, and in fact the same sort of problem that Orange suffered in July has also happened on Verizon in the U.S. and on Britain’s O2. That was down to a malfunction in a piece of infrastructure known as the Home Location Register.

It’s not exactly the most commonly known piece of gear, but in brief the HLR acts as an anchor point to which we remain tethered as we move about the network. It stores our subscriber identities and knows what services we can access, but most importantly, it tracks each device’s present location so the network knows where to direct inbound and outbound traffic.

The HLR plays its dispatch role by receiving a constant stream of signals from devices updating the database on their current locations and activities.  According to Computerworld, a data glitch in an Orange HLR node generated error messages, which then multiplied as they got knocked back and forth around the network.

Just because the HLR was failing, that didn’t stop devices from sending out their updates. Like a million kids screaming “look at me!” from the backseat while you’re trying to deal with the coffee you just spilled in your lap, smartphones kept pinging the suffering HLR creating a huge bottleneck. The end result: the whole system fails, leaving millions of handsets without their lifelines to the network core.

Small comfort, perhaps, for Orange subscribers to know that they aren’t alone. But still, while the source of the voicemail block is not yet public, it’s unlikely to be related to the July outage.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Lisa F. Young.

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