The Rogers network outage on Friday showcased Canada’s reliance on the telecommunications industry, experts say, as over 10 million people nationwide were left without service, struggling to make purchases, and unable to use their phones and access Wi-Fi for nearly an entire day.
“When you’re so close to something, it’s hard to actually understand just how reliant you are,” Tyler Chamberlin, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, told Global News.
“So, having it knocked out is a big disruption.”
Chamberlin was in Toronto during the outage and heard frequent announcements in the grocery store while shopping that paying with debit wouldn’t be an option at checkout.
“Store employees were having to take back big baskets of goods and restock the shelves because people literally had to walk away,” he said.
“The fact people were actually walking away from their groceries in the grocery store, that’s sad. That’s what I worry about.”
And, as technology systems will always face inevitable failures, similar outages could likely happen in the future.
“The idea that we’re going to avoid this altogether is, I think, probably unrealistic,” Chamberlin said.
“There’s only so much that can be done in terms of the actual plumbing of the internet. We don’t have a lot of options.”
Beanfield, an independent fibre network operator, called the outage “every telecom provider’s nightmare,” but said it was also an example of why it has long been concerned with the lack of rivals for Rogers, Telus and BCE.
“A lack of competition and choice can lead to a building with the population of a small town going completely dark — cut off from all communications,” the company said on Twitter.
“If you can’t even get help from a neighbour, where do you go? How do you call 911?”
The business implications are likewise tremendous, the company added.
“The consequences of such an outage for the financial sector, the lack of functioning ATMs, of working bank branches, can be catastrophic,” it said.
“Not to mention the independent businesses across the country with no way of processing payment.”
The challenge of only having a limited number of providers isn’t one only Canada sees, according to Chamberlin.
“The federal government has loosened the rules for foreign players in the telecoms industry but you don’t see them running in. Part of that is because it would be very hard to start from scratch and you have to pull all these people away from the existing providers,” he said.
“You have to get them to give up on Rogers and Bell.”
And, when looking to the future of the telecoms industry in Canada, Chamberlin doesn’t expect to see much change.
“I think the time for the big structuring of the industry was many years ago,” he said.
“You are now in a situation where it’s going to be very hard to change that.”
To be prepared should another nationwide outage occur, Chamberlin has tips for Canadians to follow.
Diversifying your service providers is one option, though it has its setbacks.
“People tend not to do that because typically there is an advantage for them to bundle their services together,” Chamberlin said.
“But, if you’re thinking about these things and you’re worried about it, that’s one thing potentially you could do to make sure you have different networks you can access into.”
Chamberlin also suggested keeping a stash of cash, if possible, in case a disturbance again causes payment systems to go down.
“We take it for granted and we have for such a long time but one of the nice things about Canadian currency is it can be used digitally, but it also has a physical form,” he said.
This is also another reason Canadians should be “skeptical” about cryptocurrency, according to Chamberlin.
“Technical systems, even big, expensive technical systems fail. You better hope your network never fails. The fact that you can’t fall back to physical money — it doesn’t exist that way,” he said.
Tony Staffieri, president and chief executive of Rogers Communications, said the outage was caused by a maintenance upgrade.
“We had a maintenance upgrade in our core network and that caused our routers to malfunction,” he said in an interview with Global News, noting the company has a team from around the world analyzing the outage.
“Those routers erroneously flooded the network with traffic and that’s what caused the network to be inoperable for our customers.”
Canadian politicians including François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Sciences and Industry, have commented publicly on the outage.
“Spoke to the CEO of Rogers. Shared with him the frustrations of millions of Canadians,” he said online Friday.
“This unacceptable situation is why quality, diversity and reliability are key in our telecom network.”
Champagne said he plans to meet with the Rogers CEO, among others, to discuss the importance of improving networks across the country.
— with files from the Canadian Press