The massive Rogers outage took centre stage yesterday as CEOs of the leading telecom companies met with Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne to discuss next steps to reduce the likelihood of a similar event in the future. My initial post on the outage focused on three main issues: conducting hearings into the issue by both the CRTC and a House of Commons committee, competition policy, and consumer compensation. None of these issue were top of mind for the companies or Minister, who instead emphasized the need for agreements among the companies within 60 days on emergency roaming, mutual assistance during outages, and a communications protocol to better inform the public and authorities during telecommunications emergencies. The Minister also noted that there will also be a CRTC investigation.
While these are all useful steps largely modelled on similar developments in the United States, even Champagne acknowledged that this is “just a first step.” So what else should be on the government’s to-do list?
First, the investigations should extend beyond just the CRTC. Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith tweeted out a letter last night to the Chair of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology calling for political hearings on the outages. Those hearings should not only focus on the technical issues behind the Rogers outage, but also seek to understand how essential services such as payment and emergency systems were rendered inaccessible. The hearings could also address the consumer dimension, including how the emphasis on bundling has left millions of Canadians more vulnerable in the event of a wide-scale network outage.
Second, Champagne must address the consumer compensation issue with the government establishing regulations with pre-determined payments where service is unavailable for extended periods. While the carriers would like compensation to only apply with outages exceeding 24 hours, a four hour outage is a far more reasonable starting point with increased compensation for each additional four hours. Moreover, the payments should be based on inconvenience and harm, not merely the literal cost of one day’s service.
Third, Champagne should mandate new transparency requirements regarding outages and cases involving extended downtime. These records should be filed with the CRTC on a quarterly basis and made available to the public. Much like the carriers now compete on the basis of fewest complaints to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services, they would likely begin to promote their services on the basis of reliability as measured through their quarterly disclosures.
Fourth, the communications protocol should not be left to the carriers alone. Communications from the regulated utility sector is often far better than what Canadians experience from companies such as Rogers. Outage maps, estimated times to address problems, and consistent, widely accessible communications have become standard for hydro utilities. The same should be true for communications services with penalties levied for failure to meet the requisite standard.
Fifth, access to emergency services is a must-have, not a nice-to-have service. Reports of failures to access to 911 from cellphones – which are supposed to still work for emergency calls – during the outage must be investigated. Further, IP-based home phone services may not have a viable means of accessing 911 with a dead phone line and no communications alternatives. Potential technical solutions are urgently needed.
Each of these responses are designed to address the immediate concerns associated with the Rogers outage. But just as important are longer-term policies aimed at address the bigger challenges within the Canadian communications market. At least three to-do’s top that list:
First, the next chair of the CRTC must be someone with a telecom/industry background. While the government has been increasingly focused on Cancon and broadcast cultural issues, the events of last week highlight that everything depends upon reliable, affordable networks. Get that issue wrong and all the Cancon in the world isn’t accessible to Canadians. The government must prioritize its communications infrastructure and its impact on consumers and business as the single most important policy issue faced by the CRTC. The regulator must therefore be led by someone who is both independent and commands respect based on experience in the area. To select anyone else is to send a message to the 12 million Canadians who were hurt by the Rogers outage that the government views their concerns as secondary to demands from cultural lobby groups.
Second, the competition concerns with Canada’s communications sector must be met with real policy reforms. Few dispute that Canada’s broadband and wireless pricing is among the most expensive in the world. While the carriers have often touted the link between high prices and network quality, the latest outage confirms that the networks often fail to live up to the industry hype. Instead, the high prices mean consumers gravitate to riskier bundled options in order to reduce pricey monthly bills. Canada needs real competition that draws on both facilities-based and services-based competitors which could include MVNOs and other innovative mechanisms to bring new service providers into the market.
Third, the Rogers-Shaw merger should be regarded as dead in the water. In light of Friday’s events, the last thing Canadians need is an even more concentrated market. If Canada is serious about more competition, removing a major competitor from the market simply can’t happen.
The Rogers outage caused enormous harm, but may have been a much-needed shock to the system that wakes Champagne and the government out of their policy slumber. Disinterest in telecom policy helped facilitate the disastrous events of last week. It is now up to Champagne and the government to re-engage on telecom policy with a consistent commitment to action.