Rogers’ digital disaster provides a call for action

During the 2008 global financial meltdown, the phrase “too big to fail” was employed to describe corporations so large and influential that their failure would cause catastrophic damage to the economy.

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Opinion

During the 2008 global financial meltdown, the phrase “too big to fail” was employed to describe corporations so large and influential that their failure would cause catastrophic damage to the economy.

Governments offered massive support packages to allow such corporations and sectors — automotive, banking, insurance, investment — to weather the financial storm. The strategy proved generally effective, but it also offered a stark lesson regarding the dangers of allowing massive, oligopolistic corporations to hold excessive control of society’s key levers.

Canada’s telecommunications industry is by no means in the midst of an existential financial crisis — quite the opposite, if recent years’ balance sheets are any indication — but the events of last Friday suggest the nation’s telecom giants are both too big and too powerful, and yet are fully capable of failing.

Daniel Crump DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Rogers experienced a massive outage on Friday that disrupted internet and cellular service across Canada.

As a result of what its executives vaguely described as “a network system failure following a maintenance update in our core network, which caused some of our routers to malfunction,” Rogers Communications Inc. last Friday experienced a massive outage that disrupted internet and cellular service across Canada for what amounted to an entire day.

In addition to shutting down cell-phone communication for millions of subscribers, the outage also interrupted commercial activity by rendering the Interac debit system inoperable and, more crucially, made 911 emergency service unavailable to millions who depend on the Rogers system for communication.

It was an excruciatingly extended moment that exposed the weakness of Canada’s telecom sector, which is dominated by three massive corporate players — Rogers, BCE (Bell) Inc. and Telus Corp. And in the aftermath, federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne summoned top executives from those companies, as well as Quebec-based Vidéotron Ltd., SaskTel and Maritime-based Eastlink, to an emergency conference-call discussion aimed at ensuring Canadians are protected from any such system-wide interruption in the future.

Mr. Champagne rightly demanded the companies’ chief executives immediately create a co-operative framework that will require wireless carriers to support each other in the event of major network outages, including the provision of emergency roaming across networks to protect wireless users from being shut out of critical services.

That framework must be implemented within 60 days.

While such an initiative might help shield Canadians — who, like citizens everywhere, have become overwhelmingly reliant on digital technology and mobile-device connections — from dangerous interruptions of service, it doesn’t speak to a larger issue which has been central to the evolution of telecommunications technology and services: the inherent contradiction that lies in the country’s communications infrastructure — a public trust — being almost completely controlled by a small number of huge, for-profit corporations.

ANDREW VAUGHAN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne wants to create a co-operative framework that will require wireless carriers to support each other in the event of major network outages.

Over the span of decades, companies such as Rogers, BCE and Telus have expanded and consolidated to create massive conglomerates that hold great influence in the realms of cable/specialty television, telephone, internet and more. The nation’s communications/broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, has monitored and approved their growth, apparently in the belief a concentration of ownership and control, and a lack of competition in the sector, would not negatively impact Canadians.

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider that position. Perhaps it’s time to ask whether there’s room for a publicly owned provider — one whose sole purpose is provision of digital service, rather than ensuring a healthy shareholder return — in the telecommunications landscape.

Last week’s massive technological failure should be seen by the government and the CRTC as an urgent call for action. As last Friday’s events made abundantly clear, it’s possible for companies in key sectors to be, at the same time, far too big and far too fallible.

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