Opinion: The Rogers outage is an opportunity to change the way we think about our digital infrastructure

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People use wifi outside the Rogers store inside Toronto’s Fairview mall during Rogers’ massive cellular and internet outage on July 8.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Vass Bednar is the Managing Director of the Masters in Public Policy in the Digital Society program at McMaster University.

As Canadians woke up on July 8 to Rogers’ massive cellular and internet outage, I sat gratefully at home using my unaffected Bell Fibe internet to scroll through Twitter. The outage reminded me of the great blackout of 2003, which caused the loss of electricity to most of the northeastern United States and much of Ontario, and I wanted to see if any other people felt the same way.

The outage came just as Canada was on the cusp of a rapid wave of digitalization, before smartphones were ubiquitous, and long before many people could work from anywhere with a connection. Internet. On Twitter, many people shared fond memories with me of that time: eating ice cream from their freezer before it melts, chatting with neighbors outside, even volunteer to direct traffic.

A defining characteristic of this time, however, is that the internet was just a “nice to have”. Apple’s App Store wouldn’t launch for another five years, and it was pretty important to have a camera phone back then – if you even had a cellphone.

Rogers system outage occurred after mainnet maintenance update: CEO

The Rogers outage disrupted services across Canada. A list of what was affected

Things are very different today. Tremendous advances in mobile technology have made Canada’s telecommunications extremely powerful, and that power has consolidated into just five major players. This number also threatens to decline with the proposed Rogers-Shaw merger currently under review by Canada’s Competition Bureau. If the deal goes through, the company that caused the loss of the connection between so many Canadians would serve about 40% of all homes in English Canada.

For me, however, the Rogers cellular and wireless outage was not primarily related to the need for competition reform in Canada. On the contrary, it reinforced the idea that our telecommunications networks are vital public infrastructure controlled by private companies. We have lost sight of this balance, despite how we rely on these networks.

The Rogers outage cut Interac services, meaning countless payment terminals across Canada were forced offline, prompting retailers to turn away customers if they didn’t have one. cash. The ArriveCAN app, already plagued by problems, was completely decommissioned. Passport offices have been closed; the Newfoundland and Labrador Poison Helpline has been closed; even some wading pools in Toronto have been closed, due to the need for a working cell phone on site.

According to a recent survey according to Statistics Canada, 45% of Canadians have cell phones but no landline service, which means that their cell phones are their conduits to society. The network is also necessary for emergency services, such as 911.

Given that we need access to cellular and wireless services for emergencies – but also to participate fully in society – perhaps it’s finally time for Canada to seriously entertain competitors led by the government to the private players who dominate the industry.

In Canada, the Internet is considered an essential service and a public good, and we already treat Internet Service Providers as a utility, regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. (Although on July 8, CRTC phone lines were down because – you guessed it – they rely on Rogers.)

We have tacitly recognized that the private sector alone cannot provide this vital service, given the significant continued investment in rural broadband, and our significant investment in the Canadian global satellite company Telesat, which is arguably positioned to be a Canadian competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink and other foreign low-orbit satellite internet providers.

The City of Toronto has launched the ConnectTO initiative, which aims to leverage public assets by enabling affordable high-speed internet service where it is needed most. At the provincial level, initiatives like Canada-Ontario Broadband Partnership and SaskTela Canadian crown corporation that provides these services in Saskatchewan, prove that a public approach can work.

The increasing consolidation of the sector is drive up prices and strengthen a fragile system, even though the means to connect for free are increasingly rare. This is why the state could play a greater role in supporting more sustainable connectivity for Canadians.

We need to pay attention to where people congregate when they cannot log on at home and facilitate round-the-clock access for people to log on for free, for example through the public library system. Legacy infrastructure such as phone booths could be repurposed so people can make free, unlimited local calls to help if their cellphones are jammed.

Ultimately, there are many parallels between the Rogers outage and the 2003 outage – primarily the fact that many Canadians were cut off from critical infrastructure. The 2003 blackout catalyzed serious reforms of the affected electricity networks; the question is whether the Rogers disaster will prompt a rethink of how we deliver and govern digital infrastructure.

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