The Canadian government could teach a master class in deflection.
As gratifying as it was to hear Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne scold Rogers Communications Inc. for its network outage, he and his cabinet colleagues should also be taken to task.
At least some of the chaos experienced by first responders, hospitals and other public safety workers last week could have been avoided if Ottawa had delivered on an 11-year-old promise to establish a secure wireless network for emergency services.
Officially known as the Public Safety Broadband Network, or PSBN, the proposed Canada-wide network would be different than the commercial cellular services currently offered by national carriers Rogers, BCE Inc. and Telus Corp.
Not only would a PSBN prioritize secure communications by emergency workers, but it would allow public safety agencies across Canada to communicate with each other and their counterparts in the United States (which already has its own such network) during terrorist attacks and other emergencies.
Canada’s proposed PSBN would also support other communication services such as national public alerts and next-generation 911 (which will allow Canadians to send photos and video to police, fire and ambulance workers).
Given that climate disasters, including wildfires and floods, occur with some degree of regularity in Canada, one would have thought the proposed PSBN would be operational by now. But instead, like most of our national projects, it has become mired in lengthy delays.
Sure, various governments across the country have a role to play in providing emergency services. But Ottawa has failed to show sufficient national leadership on establishing the proposed PSBN.
Ultimately, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), which is Mr. Champagne’s ministry, is in charge of the spectrum, the invisible radio waves that carry wireless signals, needed for the network. Emergency management, meanwhile, is the responsibility of Public Safety Canada.
The impact of the Rogers outage on emergency services should serve as a wake-up call for Mr. Champagne, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair.
After what happened last week, it has never been more urgent for these cabinet ministers to show some initiative and finally get the PSBN up and running across the country.
Mr. Blair, in particular, is ideally suited to take charge of this effort. After all, he helped convince former prime minister Stephen Harper about the merits of such a network back in 2011. At the time, Mr. Blair was still chief of the Toronto police, and advocated for the project in his other role as president of the Canadian Associations of Chiefs of Police, according to correspondence obtained by The Globe and Mail.
His lengthy experience as a police officer means that he knows all too well that our domestic emergency services often can’t talk to each other because they use different radio systems. That lack of interoperability, as it is known, has resulted in communication problems during disasters such as the Fort McMurray, Alta., wildfire in 2016.
Moreover, the radio systems used by police, fire and ambulance workers have limited functionality. While they enable voice communication, they are unable to support data-rich services, such as photos and video.
That’s prompted emergency workers to “supplement” their own radio systems with commercial cellular services offered by major carriers, according to a 2019 report published on Public Safety Canada’s website. But the report warns that those “commercial offerings lack the reliability, guaranteed access and certain security features” required by emergency personnel.
These limitations, of course, are the very reason the United States established its FirstNet network for emergency responders in 2012. Its creation was a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission Report, which outlined how jammed cellular networks hampered emergency workers during the 2001 attacks.
It’s been many years since Canada set aside the same portion of 700 MHz spectrum as the United States for the PSBN. Even so, progress has been slow on this side of the border.
In March, Public Safety published a final report that outlines recommendations for the PSBN. Although it envisions a wireless network that gives priority access for emergency workers, it recognizes that commercial carriers and natural-resource companies may also have roles to play, especially when it comes to ensuring coverage in rural and remote communities.
“As disasters in Canada increase in frequency and severity and as day-to-day operations, emergencies and major events require significant amounts of data, the status quo is not sustainable in the 21st century,” the report states.
Then why is there still no deadline to deploy this network?
“The development of a PSBN in Canada is complex and requires decisions at various levels of governments and jurisdictions. Continued collaboration among all levels of governments, industry and end users is essential to establish a network that meets the diverse expectations and interests of stakeholders,” says an ISED e-mail statement to The Globe.
“The government is committed to supporting this initiative in a manner that benefits public safety outcomes and the safety of all Canadians. Given these complexities, ISED is unable to provide timelines related to this process.”
Public Safety Canada, meanwhile, echoed those sentiments even while it stressed “the timeliness of deployment is at the forefront of the conversation.”
It’s already been 11 years. Well, that’s Canadian standard time for you.
Clearly, the federal government has its own lessons to learn from the Rogers outage.
Service interruptions are inevitable on commercial networks. But public safety should never be left to chance.
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