Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

Hackett: Rogers outage brings our digital world into stark focus

The fragility of our digital world and its reliability were front and centre Friday morning.

Whether you heard or not depends on a number of factors, but Rogers’ internet and mobile service crashed unexpectedly in the early, early morning Friday, while most people were still asleep.

When I first heard the news, I didn’t think much of it, glad that I switched from Rogers to Telus just a few months ago for my cell phone plan and home internet.

When I started to hear the scope of the outage, which included ATMs, debit machines, and 9-1-1 service among other things, it really hit hard about how reliant we are on technology.

I thought about getting gas on the way home from work, which is a no-go if the debit machine isn’t working. I thought about what I would eat for dinner since my fridge has largely been empty during the basement saga (it’s still going by the way, but we’ll save that story for another day).

We live in a largely cashless world, with most people paying through tap on their debit or credit cards, or using Apple pay or whatever other options are out there these days. Which is obviously problematic on a day like today.

Those are largely first-world problems, but what about seniors who live alone and their only link to the outside world is through a Rogers connection? What about people who have a serious emergency and can’t get through to 9-1-1 because they’ve got rid of a traditional landline.

Work for many people has been impacted because somewhere down the line, an aspect of most businesses was impacted by the outage.

It’s worth considering whether this was an attack on our democracy, from somewhere like Russia or China. With Canada’s support for Ukraine during the conflict and Russia’s interference with the 2016 U.S. election, it’s not a stretch to imagine they wouldn’t enjoy throwing Canada into chaos for a day.

Same thing in China, after a conflict with Chinese Telecommunications giant Huawei.

Canada banned the company from its 5G network earlier this summer, over concerns for national security. Based on the outage today, maybe the federal government needs to take a closer look at our national security and the reliance on a few groups who provide communication services.

Canada’s reliance on very few internet providers is in plain view now. Rogers, Bell and Telus essentially have a monopoly on the market, providing internet and cell service to almost the entire country.

The Competition Bureau is currently trying to thwart an attempt by Rogers to purchase Shaw Communications Inc. for $26 billion. Rogers even planned to sell its Freedom Mobile business to Quebecor Inc. because the regulator feels the deal would only bolster Rogers’ monopoly and not create a viable fourth carrier.

“The outage is illuminating the general lack of competition in telecommunications in Canada,” executive director of McMaster University’s master of public policy program Vass Bednar told The Canadian Press Friday.

When everything from 9-1-1 services to transit is impacted by a Rogers outage, the reach of telecommunications companies is very obvious, Bednar said.

“But unless we’re going to see people switching their providers today or new publicly run options suddenly springing up there’s not much more that we can do right now other than perhaps factor in people’s anger and frustration, as the pending Rogers-Shaw deal is considered.”

I would never suggest we are better off without the connections that the digital world has helped bring. It connects people all around the world and gives us access to information at an unprecedented rate. It helps make our lives more efficient and at times, safer.

But such a reliance, when challenged like it was on Friday shows that maybe there needs to be more of a balance in our lives. If not a balance, we can at least try and find more of an appreciation about what the world was before we were so connected.

Maybe we need to unplug a lot more, carry cash more regularly. Some Gen Zers will shutter at the thought of not having access to TikTok or social media endlessly, but this is really much bigger than that.

Most in the younger generation can’t fathom a world where you don’t have a GPS to get somewhere, but you had to print out directions on MapQuest or worse, use an actual map. Those weren’t necessarily better times or simpler times and they sure seem archaic when you think about it.

My family drove from Ontario to California when I was a kid. My mom printed out the directions and also highlighted the route on a physical map. We had to stop and ask for directions plenty of times (at the behest of my dad of course) and we got lost, like really lost several times too. We didn’t have cell phones, we played word games and read books– although I did have a GameBoy.

I remember we almost always used cash, which when we were in Canada which was almost never the case.

There were complications, like when my dad took the van to the mechanic and we were stuck in the trailer, with no sense about when he would be back.

I mostly grew up with internet access, although it was dial-up, I had to call my mom when I got home from school to ask if I could go in the computer. It was a different world than the access kids have now.

Again, there’s no sense in judging which world was better or if we were better off back then. But this outage got me thinking about it and how there was no way even 20 years ago we could have imagined a future where we wouldn’t be able to pay for gas or groceries because the internet wasn’t working.

It’s an interesting if perhaps futile exercise. But certainly a rabbit hole I found myself travelling down in the wake of Friday’s news.

Byron Hackett is the Managing Editor of the Red Deer Advocate.