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opinion

Beware the Rogers upgrade.

In what is becoming an annual event, the telecommunication firm’s internet, cellphone, home phone and cable TV services went dark for a day, Friday into Saturday, as the result of a “maintenance upgrade” to its core network. Just 15 months earlier, in April, 2021, a routine software upgrade took down the company’s wireless service, from coast to coast, for 12 hours.

This page is not a repository of engineering scholarship, but nor has it been spared the chaos caused by computers, printers and other home technology that suddenly become inoperable after being subjected to a “routine” upgrade.

So when Rogers blames just such a thing for a calamity that blocked its millions of customers’ access to the 911 emergency service, and also shut down the Interac payment system and made it impossible for some hospitals to access their medical records, it’s hard not to wonder how the company failed to anticipate such an outcome.

Perhaps it did. Perhaps the company did do some equivalent of a dry run before last week’s upgrade, and the less disastrous one in 2021, and it all went well both times and there was no way of preventing what happened.

But Canadians will likely never know. Rogers isn’t subject to government oversight of its maintenance of vital public infrastructure, and that feels like the real issue in the aftermath of its second major outage.

Cellphones and the internet are no longer optional services for Canadians, whether for private use or as part of a business. As others have written, this is something Ottawa has acknowledged through its efforts to expand broadband internet to rural areas. Other levels of government have done the same, through projects to make sure low-income earners can afford internet service and cellphones.

As well, close to half the households in Canada have no land lines. They are entirely reliant on cellphones for staying in touch with loved ones and contacting emergency services.

Businesses of all sizes, from banks to restaurants to Uber drivers, are meanwhile more dependent on cellphones, and especially the internet, than they have ever been. So are governments at all levels. So are hospitals, medical laboratories and doctors.

Canadian governments set reliability and resilience standards for such critical infrastructure as the electrical grid, and also impose oversight on food production, construction, banking and most every other industry that is unavoidable and central to life. But Ottawa has to date declined to do the same for cellphones and the internet.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates the internet and cellphones, instead says it relies on competition between providers to ensure a high quality of service.

But in a country dominated by just three companies – Bell, Rogers and Telus – and with Rogers actively trying to acquire Shaw, a major player in the West, the idea that competition is working in Canadians’ favour is dubious.

The CRTC admitted in a 2021 review of the telecommunications industry that Canadians pay more for internet and cellphone service than “what would prevail in a fully competitive market.” And it has acknowledged that “consumers face barriers in switching providers.”

Tellingly, in 2021, the year of the previous Rogers outage, the company saw lower churn – the measure of the number of subscribers that leave the business in a given period – than it did the year before, according to its 2021 annual report.

Add to this the fact that the country’s largest wireless provider has had two major outages in under 15 months, and the contention that the invisible hand of the market is at work every time Rogers or one of its competitors does a software patch is not well defended.

There were panicked people desperately trying and failing to reach 911 on Friday, businesses that lost sales and doctors that couldn’t access the records of patients.

And yet while Canada protects its few telecommunications giants from foreign and domestic competition, it is failing to ensure that the critical infrastructure the companies profit from meets basic reliability standards.

Ottawa has two choices: It can allow more competition in Canada and make the system more reliable that way; or it can step in and do the job in the absence of a real marketplace. For the safety of Canadians, it can’t have it both ways.

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