You didn’t have to be a Rogers customer to feel the sense of dread when waking up to the news of a widespread wireless and internet outage Friday morning. The day, for millions of Canadians, was already off to a bad start.
At a Starbucks in Toronto, there was no quick tap of a debit card to get your caffeine fix on the run, as the disruption affected online payment systems across the country. Commuters in Vancouver were advised they may not be able to pay transit fares with debit cards. Cafes and libraries still offering Wi-Fi became makeshift offices. Any convenience to working from home became an inconvenience for those relying on the telecom giant’s services.
It’s the second major Rogers disruption in about 14 months. The company admitted to its 11 million wireless subscribers: “Today we have let you down.”
The Canadian economy, and everyday life, is tethered to our communications networks, and when they go down, like Rogers did for much of the day Friday, there is no universal Plan B to keep widely-used – and vital — services online.
The repercussions are serious.
At least a half a million merchants use Interac debit payments, which rely on the Rogers network. Government services, including the ArriveCan app, have been impacted. The Niagara Health authority had to cancel radiation therapy appointments. Some cities have warned Rogers customers they may have trouble contacting 9-1-1 in emergencies.
“We have become remarkably fragile because of the rapid pace of innovation and the rapid pace of implementation of new techniques and new forms of technology,” said economist Dan Ciuriak, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance and Innovation.
This needs to be a “wake-up call,” he said, not just for Rogers but for Canada’s wireless communications infrastructure as a whole.
“We’re talking about moving into the Metaverse. We’re still in the dinoverse unfortunately, and this is pretty bad for Canada business-wise.”
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In an email to some corporate customers, Rogers blamed the disruption on an outage within its core network. There was no estimate for full restoration, though some services appeared to be returning to normal late Friday.
While Rogers will have to further explain what led to such a significant failure, Ciuriak said Canada has “lagged” in its development of wireless network hardware compared to other countries, as well with its security.
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Tyler Chamberlain, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, isn’t as critical of the country’s wireless communications infrastructure, noting these types of service interruptions are more common in other countries.
He said it would be “really expensive” to build any system that “never fails.”
Part of the problem is that, whether it’s in our business or personal lives, we often rely on one company for all of our telecommunications services, said Chamberlain, which is something companies like Rogers, Bell and Shaw offer as an incentive for slightly lower prices.
“[That’s] one of the things that maybe you want to … reconsider because if you are all-in-one and that one goes down, you really are isolated,” he said, especially for those working from home full time. Though, he admitted that’s not necessarily an option in rural parts of the country.
Businesses relying on wireless networks may want to consider the same thing, added David Soberman, a marketing professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
“If cashless payment systems are based on one network, you may find that some companies basically contract with two different [wireless or internet] suppliers so that they have one option if the other fails,” he said.
“But not all companies can afford all those backups.”
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Who’s to blame?
The responsibility lies with a company like Rogers when its services fail, said Soberman.
“I think the real issue here is that Rogers has a problem in their systems and they obviously aren’t managing it very well,” he said, noting the the other major wireless and internet providers in Canada haven’t had such major disruptions in such a short period of time as Rogers has in the past two years.
Federal government critics are demanding an investigation into the Rogers service disruption.
“Given the critical infrastructure that’s affected, and that the CRTC itself is affected, the cause of the Rogers outage should be immediately explained,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner said in a statement shared on Twitter, calling for an emergency parliamentary committee meeting to “make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh claimed the widespread disruption to businesses and services is a consequence of the Liberal government “protecting the profits of telecoms giants.”
Ciuriak said the government has a regulatory responsibility but it stops there.
“You would not expect a government bureaucrat to understand the software requirements to ensure that systems are robust and resilient,” he said.
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A vital service needing regulation?
Although the CRTC has declared broadband internet a basic telecommunications service, it’s not a utility like water or power, which are mostly run by Crown corporations or quasi-Crown corporations, Chamberlain added.
But Soberman said the government may want to consider treating the wireless and internet services in a similar fashion to ensure there is limited disruption to business and vital services like 911.
“[The] internet is providing an infrastructure that is as important as the electrical system, is as important as the water, is certainly as important as the postal system,” he said.
There could be a means of other wireless or internet companies stepping in to mitigate a disruption like this, he suggested.
“You might be able to make some kind of a law or regulation that would ensure that service is provided all the time to people, even if one of the suppliers has a problem.”
The CRTC does have rules regarding the telecom networks ensuring cellphone users are still able to contact 911 even without wireless service. But the regulator did not immediately reply to CBC’s question about whether that rule was breached as a result of the Rogers outage.
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