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Responding to the Rogers Outage: Time to Get Serious About Competition, Consumer Rights, and Communications Regulation

Like many Canadians, I spent most of the massive Rogers outage completely offline. With the benefit of hindsight, my family made a big mistake by relying on a single provider for everything: broadband, home phone, cable, and wireless services on a family plan. When everything went down, everything really went down. No dial tone, no channels, no connectivity. Work was challenging and contact with the kids shut off. It was disorienting and a reminder of our reliance on communications networks for virtually every aspect of our daily lives.

So what comes next? We cannot let this become nothing more than a “what did you do” memory alongside some nominal credit from Rogers for the inconvenience. Canada obviously has a competition problem when it comes to communications services resulting in some of the highest wireless and broadband pricing in the developed world. Purchasing more of those services as a backup – whether an extra broadband or cellphone connection – will be unaffordable to most and only exacerbate the problem. Even distributing the services among providers likely means that consumers take a financial hit as they walk away from the benefits from a market that has incentivized bundling discounts.  Consumers always pay the price in these circumstances, but there are policy solutions that could reduce the risk of catastrophic outages and our reliance on a single provider for so many essential services.

First, there is a need to better understand what happened and why. Rogers CEO says the problem lies with maintenance to the core network, which caused some routers to malfunction. But that’s just tech talk. Canadians deserve answers that explain not only how this happened, but how we find ourselves in a position where malfunctioning routers at one company cause a nationwide payment system to go down, government services to be taken offline, and emergency services to be rendered inaccessible. It is one thing for my household to make a mistake, but another for Interac to do so. That means conducting an open CRTC process into this outage alongside a Parliamentary hearing on the broader issues since this is a matter that requires both regulatory and political response. There is no need to wait: these hearings must happen this month with the goal of identifying the scope and source of the problem along with potential policies that might mitigate future harms.

Neither the CRTC nor the current government has shown much inclination to challenge the big telcos. CRTC Chair Ian Scott has reversed years of a consumer-focused Commission into one more comfortable supporting the big providers, while the government has been far more interested in sabre rattling or shaking down Internet companies than taking on big telecom. Yet as we were reminded on Friday, the linkage to the availability of essential services – payments, health care, government services – runs through the telcos, not the Internet companies.

Second, can we finally get serious about competition in communications in Canada? The Rogers-Shaw merger should have been a non-starter from the very outset. Indeed, the hubris of the respective companies stems largely from a government and Competition Bureau that gave Bell a pass on its MTS merger and had consistently avoided confrontational decisions. In light of Friday’s events, the last thing Canada needs is an even more concentrated market. But stopping that merger alone would only maintain the status quo. The CRTC under Scott has proven to be a barrier to service-based competition, yet a regulatory model that offers third-party providers with access to multiple facilities-based providers or spectrum could offer innovative services that work around outages.

Third, there needs to be far more transparency regarding operational downtime and regulatory penalties where services are unavailable for extended periods. At the moment, downtime is often guesswork on the part of the customers and remedies require persistence that is rarely worth anyone’s time. While the airline sector isn’t anyone’s idea of a model right now, the regulatory framework for flight delays with regulated payments for extended delays could be incorporated into the telecom sector. Such compensation should be automated with customers entitled to it due to the downtime without the need for a formal application. Instead, downtime and applicable compensation should simply appear as a line item on monthly invoices.

The Rogers outage must be a wake-up for a government that has been asleep on digital policy, content to cite dubious claims about meeting wireless pricing targets, introducing a policy direction that signalled more of the same, and handing over broader digital policy to a Canadian Heritage department largely captured by a few culture lobbyist groups that view the Internet primarily as a threat. Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne may fashion himself as a great salesman for Canada, but even he can’t sell the state of Canadian communications competition. The blame for Friday’s outage may lie with Rogers, but the government and CRTC should be held accountable for a failure to respond.

23 Comments

  1. Great piece Michael. But ultimately this will fall on the deaf ears of both a government AND regulator that have been captured by industry.

    This is the second outage of it’s magnitude from Rogers in as many years. What happened last time to prevent it happening again in the future? Clearly nothing.

  2. Zsolt Varsanyi says:

    Great piece!

    I’ve never seen so many calls for breaking up the monopoly. Either in the form of nationalizing the backbone infrastructure and letting vendors come up with biz models, or by turning the entire telecom network into a utility.

    Both seem like they could work, but I suppose the devils in the details. Would it be arms length from the gov. like the CBC? How do you keep the gov of the day away from the main levers respective of their political bias?

    This is far more than just pipes and tubes – its culture, freedom of assembly, and even commerce.

  3. The incompetence of Rogers IT department is astounding.

  4. sharon burd says:

    Maybe if we learned to live simpler and not to base our lives and past times on the internet and technology this article would be moot. Live like your parents did 40 years ago. Most people I know can’t even afford internet, let alone satellite or cable TV. Cell phones have the basic call/text plans with no data. In short, my community would rather eat and do not have your financial resources at their fingertips. Learn to live with less.

    • Zsolt Varsanyi says:

      On the one hand I agree with you – we should be less dependent on tech.

      On the other hand- this texh is not going away – just as our reliance of society is Not. Sure you can live off grid and get the hell away from this machine we created, but its not an easy task for most. For most they need to rely on our communications infrastructure and if that infrastructure is as it is now – well we just saw that.

  5. The reason given by the CEO is ridiculous. Anything deemed to be ‘core critical’ would be tested in ‘the box’ prior to even thinking about implementing and rolling out.

    Is this guy actually saying that Rogers has a single point failure infrastrucure? If that’s the case they should be shutdown immediately, barred from having anything to do with critical systems networking.

    As a shareholder I’d demand this clown resign. All he did was admit incompetance on an epic scale as well as the total lack of any industry protocols.

    Bad actor’s around the world certainly took note without a doubt.

  6. I wonder why Rogers users did not automatically fall over to roam on alternate networks. Do we not have this in Canada. hmmm…

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  20. sharon burd says:

    To Zolt,
    I don’t live off grid. I live in a rural area and have hydro and the basic necessities. I check my emails about once a week. I don’t want or need date on my cell phone, just talk and text. People can make choices in a lot of ways to simplify life and not rely as heavily on these corporate tech giants. It’s their expectation of entitlement that leads to discussions such as this.

  21. To Sharon,
    I understand your perspective and its great you’ve simplified your life in regards to this. It is a good place to be and I imagine you enjoy your life much more than the busy bodies always on screens.

    That being said I need my phone for work and I also need money to live and outages like Rogers threaten that. I understand what you mean by entitlement but for many their livelihoods depend on these corporates. Lets not forget that 911 calls were Not going through – I think in a longer convoersation we would agreee on most of what is being brought up here.

    Anyways, speaking of simplifying to enjoy life more, have you read Slowness – its a bit older but goes into this idea. I think its written by Milan Kundera.

    Best

    Zsolt

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