Ten million Canadians across the country lost cell phone service last night, as Rogers’ wireless network went down for reasons yet unknown, or at least, undisclosed. Many of them turned to Twitter to communicate and to complain, and as I write this on Thursday morning, #Rogers remains the top Twitter hashtag in the country. #Rogersoutage and #Rogersoutrage were also popular choices. Those who subscribe to Fido or Chatr, perhaps under the impression that these were alternatives to Rogers, also lost service, as these brands are Rogers-owned (as is Maclean’s) and function on Rogers’ network.
The knee-jerk response may be to crack jokes about our national smartphone addiction, as some have. But underlying such dismissals of our supposed First World problem is a decidedly Third World problem: if you don’t have a landline, as millions do not, losing wireless service is terrifying. (A year ago, an Angus Reid poll put the percentage of land-line free Canadians at 17 per cent. You can bet that it’s only gone up since then.)
Police services across the country took to the Internet and radio last night to advise people without phone service of any kind to roam the streets in search of a landline, seeking out the country’s disappearing pay phones or knocking on the doors of neighbours, should the need arise to dial 911. It’s amazing how quickly things devolve.
While Rogers CEO Nadir Mohammed was quick to call the outage “unacceptable,” the company’s offer to credit customers for one day of lost service was widely ridiculed by frustrated users. But the truth is, it’s hard to imagine what the correct corporate response would have been. A week of free service might have seemed less stingy than a day, which merely compensates customers for what they’ve already paid for, to say nothing of the true economic impact of losing communication for hours and hours. Yet it’s not the lost cash that has the country so rattled. It’s the realization that we have become completely dependent on three private companies for what has become a crucial service. Regular network crashes are not among the many complaints one hears about our Big Three carriers, who collectively control over 95 per cent of the wireless market. But it only has to happen once for almost a third of the country to be knocked offline.
Clearly, Canadians need more options, more network redundancy, more companies building more infrastructure and innovative services that let us control our numbers and nimbly shift them from one carrier to another when problems arise. If we had this, we wouldn’t be so vulnerable to one company’s bad day.
Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown