Competition Won’t Fix Canada’s Telecom Woes
Paris Marx is joined by Fenwick McKelvey to discuss the massive outage at Rogers, why it’s challenging the narrative that more competition will fix Canada’s telecom sector, and the need for better regulation and even public ownership.
Fenwick McKelvey is the author of Internet Daemons: Digital Communications Possessed. He’s also an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University and a director of Machine Agencies at the Milieu Institute. Follow Fenwick on Twitter at @mckelveyf.
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Paris Marx: Fenwick, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us!
Fenwick McKelvey: Paris, it’s totally great to be here.
PM: I’m really excited to chat with you. There was this outage recently in Canada that even people outside of Canada may have noticed happened. One of our major telecom providers went down. But before we get into talking about that, the impacts of it, what we should learn from it; I wanted to start with more of a general overview of the state of the Canadian telecoms industry. Can you talk to us a bit about what the industry is like in Canada right now, including who the major players are and why they hold such a dominant position in the market?
FM: Yeah, Canada is an interesting example of a country that has had many different phases of telecommunication policy. It really started out as a bit of a free for all with many different competing networks, and that gradually consolidated into an era of what we talked about as natural monopolies or a concentration in a few state-owned companies. There were, for generations, telephone companies that were provincially owned, so in my own home province of New Brunswick we had NBTel. These were spread across Canada, coordinating and part of a national network called the Stentor Alliance, which allowed for long distance communications.
This is part of the story of telecommunications that is basically a decade’s long history of monopolies that were state owned or public utilities that beginning in the 70s, with a turn towards what we now refer to as regulatory liberalism and neoliberalism, there’s a privatization of these companies. The Canadian telecommunication system really is still going through that process of privatization where we’ve seen, in beginning the 80s, these public utilities being sold off, and then gradually they’ve been reacquired into a few different large national monopolies.
Because of the Canadian market, these are fairly protected companies, so there’s conditions around their ownership. The split is roughly between two players usually per province, so you have a split between the large telephone legacy companies and the large cable legacy companies. Where I’m now in Montreal, we have Bell, which is the telephone company, competing with Videotron, which is our cable company. This is part of the split, and there’s some smaller players. In Ontario, where the big Rogers outage took place, you have a real divide between Bell and Rogers.
There’s still some different players, but really that’s the even split across Canada. We have roughly five major companies across Canada, and they’re usually segregated to being in select markets, so you’re not seeing all five companies competing in the same place. That’s an important part of it, as we talk about there being a big number of telecommunications companies, but they’re unevenly competing when it comes to the services that they’re providing across the country. And in some cases, actually collaborating and sharing networks.
PM: That’s a really good introduction for people to give them an idea of the state of the industry. I would just add to it by picking up on a few of the points that you that you made there. Firstly, that it is interesting to see the privatization of these public telecom companies and how they eventually become part of these monopolies or part of this oligopoly. In particular, in Manitoba, where they nationalized part of the Bell System in the early 1900s, then that was privatized in the 1990s, I believe it was, and now as of I think it was 2007, is part of Bell once again. Telus, which is one of our other major telecom companies, mainly based out west but has a national presence, particularly with mobile phone or cell phone service, that used to be Alberto’s public telecom company and BC’s private monopoly telecom company that merged together along with some others over time. It’s just really interesting to see how that plays out.
For the listeners, Rogers is one of those major cable companies that you were talking about. Bell is the legacy telephone company that had a real dominant position within Canada for a long time. Telus is also one of those major players, as I said, and we also have Shaw, which is mainly in the western part of Canada, Videotron, which is in Quebec, Eastlink, which is here on the East coast where I am. I’ll also say, you said that the outage was mainly an Ontario thing, though, not exclusively with Rogers. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we also didn’t experience it so much, other than the broader effects of it, because Rogers isn’t a big player here.
FM: I just wanted to emphasize that one of the things that’s important to realize is just the legacy and history of these networks, and part of these histories being really caught up in Canada as a settler colonial state. So the possibility of these networks to be built isn’t something that’s accidental or easy to do. For Bell’s own relationship, it really goes back to the railroad, and this is a railroad that, in my learning and knowing, it’s a railroad that was built largely as John A. MacDonald knew of the starvation that was taking place and the people the plains and using that as leverage to expropriate territory, in part to build the railroad. Those same rights away that the railway run on are now being used for fiber backbone.
It’s important to say that when we talk about telecommunications infrastructure, we’re not talking about stuff that springs up overnight. This stuff has history and it has dependencies and legacies, and in many ways when we’re talking about telecommunications in Canada, we’re talking about the settler colonial project of Canada, which is systematically dispossessed certain people from their land, and also from being connected. A lot of the digital divides that exist are in part because of where the railroad didn’t go and who isn’t connected. When we talk about these companies, they have benefited from some of the work of the state to create these rights of ways and, in many cases, give access to, if not the infrastructure, or at least the capacity of building out these networks.
PM: That’s such an essential point, and I’m so happy that you made it. One of the things that the listeners will recognize that we do a lot on the show is talk a lot about the history of various technologies and infrastructures that are involved with the internet and all these things that we’re talking about, so I’m really happy that you made that point, and that you brought it into the conversation. Now, I want to move to the Rogers outage on July 8. The Rogers network went down for virtually the whole day, and that had huge impacts across Canadian society. What was the effect of that outage? And what did it reveal about the industry?
FM: There’s two ways to approach the outage. First is what technically happened? What were the consequences of that? And then what does that reveal as a broader illustration in the telecommunications market?
What Rogers says is that three distribution routers in its core network failed or started to misbehave, a filter was removed that sort of propagating the wrong addresses to its core network, and it crashed. Now, what’s interesting is that that core network was essential for many, many different services. It’s helpful to list all of the services that were affected from Rogers. What went down was Rogers wireless, Rogers home internet, Rogers home phone system, Rogers banking systems, in part, its radio stations, parts of its omnichannel distribution systems, its provisions of services it provides to the government, the Interac banking system that we use every day to make payments. In Montreal, I was down at the Jazz Fest, and you couldn’t pay by debit, you had to pay by credit card and there were signs up. This is also something that affected certain 911 services, as well as critical infrastructure providers.
Here you are talking about this entirety of different companies that are being affected, so one critical question is how is it that Rogers network was designed and built such that everything, including both critical infrastructure and everyday home services could all be unilaterally affected by this one crash of these routers? That raises really interesting questions about their network design, what are the decisions being made, I think some questions about the kind of corporate governance taking place at the company.
The second issue is just one of concentration. We talke about this in the abstract, where market concentration is how much these companies own, but I think it’s important for folks at home to think about one of the programs that Rogers, as well as every other telecommunications company, tries to encourage is bundling, so you don’t get just your cell phone, you get your home phone, you get your television, maybe security — this is bundling. The bundling system is encouraging you to go to one provider, and really what becomes an indication is just how many services are controlled by one company.
On top of that, in Toronto, the Weeknd concert was canceled because Rogers, which owns what I would always call the Skydome, but now it’s called the Rogers Dome or wherever it is, also crashed. It’s just a cascading reminder of just all the influence this one company has over central services. And that’s I think, a really interesting part of the reaction. As someone who studied telecommunications for a long time, this outage, this crisis has really caused reactions. I was in line the other day, and people were joking about maybe having to use a credit card. It’s really remarkable how this has turned an issue that’s been really longstanding for those studying telecommunications into something that everybody now can relate to, which is really been an interesting shift.
PM: There are a few things that I want to pick up there. I don’t have this in my questions, but it came back to me as you were talking about the bundling. One of the responses that I saw in the media, even as the Rogers outage was ongoing, was how Canadians should be diversifying their services, how they should be having their cell phone from one company and their cable or internet services from another company. My reaction to that was to think that that was really individualizing a problem that is so far beyond the individual Canadian.
Should a Canadian have to worry about whether their cell phone services with Bell and their cable internet is with Rogers or what company they’re getting that from, and does that individualize the problem in a way that is really counterproductive and doesn’t really get to the core of what the problem is? Should that expectation really exists for people to diversify services, like say Interac or something like that when they’re just an individual?
FM: It’s one of the challenges when we’re talking about regulatory reform or solutions is the idea it’s an individual problem to be solved. The idea is, well, you just weren’t prepared enough. One of the fallacies is that, oh, well, it’s really as simple as just going somewhere else, and that becomes really challenging.
I’ve been studying telecommunications long enough, I remember the fight for being able to unlock your phone. It used to be that you couldn’t get a phone to swap SIM cards. That was prohibited, there’s concerns about fraud, there was real pushback, you had to pay to unlock your phone. The contingency plan being put forward was you swapped your SIM cards, which is, I think, also quite ridiculous if you’re talking about who’s able to switch your SIM card. If this is four o’clock in the morning when the network goes out, I would be fumbling at the best of times to swap SIM cards. It’d be a lot to ask anybody else.
Maybe we need to get there, but I think it’s important to remember that even the right to swap a SIM card was something that was hard fought over. It was only the result of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (the CRTC) that put in a wireless code of conduct to set obligations for carriers. That’s a really important point here is we’re seeing whether or not something like a wireless code of conduct or service standards or certain rights could actually be beneficial here, because in many ways, even possibility that you’d be able to swap services depends upon government regulation to put in place, the fact you could buy and have an unlocked phone, just to swap SIM cards.
PM: I was actually working in telecom when those changes came into place, so it was interesting to watch it from that side of things; something that people should have been able to do forever anyway, but obviously it was restricted because that benefited the companies. I want to move on to another point. This is a broader question that comes out when we’re talking about the concentration in the industry. Since at least the days that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government tried to bring Verizon to Canada, the focus of telecom policy has been on competition and the lack thereof in the Canadian market.
I’ve long seen that as a market solution to what is not inherently a market problem, given that network infrastructure often operates more like a natural monopoly or oligopoly, as you’re talking about, maybe a telephone company and a cable company are dominating, for example. Do you think that the Rogers outage will finally reset that policy debate, and allow us to look more at regulatory issues and that side of the debate rather than simply whether there’s enough competition?
FM: This is precisely the contradiction that belies a lot of interest in telecommunications, and I think more broadly platform governance, where these companies are profitable and seem to be profitable because of the natural monopoly and the buy-in and lock-in powers that they have. They’re marketized in such a way as to know that, they have this advantaged and they can extract what becomes kind of monopoly power, or at least the kind of lock-in network effects power.
And yet, at the same time, there’s this perception that the solution for this is to let the market allow for competition, which is going to bring about something that’s entirely contradictory to this process of why these companies are profitable in the first place. They do have network effects and the idea that you’re going to create competing networks, and competing networks that are going to be able to create or foster this competition, hasn’t proven true. In many ways, you could describe the 20 or 30 year history of Canadian telecommunications policy as a decades-long effort to maintain the fallacy of market competition in the telecommunications sector.
What’s really important for listeners to remember is Canada’s different, and Canada still has common carriage rules, which really provide special treatment and treat telecommunications companies as critical infrastructure subject to greater regulation. We can talk about whether that regulation is effective or not, but some of these principles — common carriage or what listeners might understand better as network neutrality; this idea that these companies have this important power that needs to be taken seriously — are an important part of the regulatory tradition in Canada. I would hope this points to this opportunity for renewal.
One of the parts that has been surprising for me is the conversation widening immediately after the Rogers outage. I teach media policy in Canada almost every year, and this year I took a break from telecommunications policy because I found it frankly too depressing. This is something which to me is interesting, and seeing what has been a fairly narrow conversation of really thinking only about competition and the idea that you’re going to have a fourth carrier come in that’s going to fix these problems, and really widening it out and to have a conversation about maybe a public utility, or maybe there’s better public access to these networks is something that’s frankly exciting.
I don’t exactly know what the right answer is, but I’ve really been frustrated by how the scope of our policy conversations has narrowed and narrowed, particularly focused on this kind of one point of competition as a cure all. Verizon never came, and I think the evidence suggests that Verizon never would have come because it was too costly. It wasn’t something to do with regulatory impediments. It was the fact that if you looked at the market and the cost to get into it, it just wasn’t worth the time and the investment to really become a carrier. That’s an important lesson to this possibility of competition occurring.
PM: I think you’ve really nailed it. I often feel like the kind of competition narrative and the focus on competition ignores the distinction between infrastructure and service delivery. Sure, you can have competition on service delivery, if you have the right regulatory framework in place around mobile virtual network operators and wholesale rates and various things like that. But ultimately, the infrastructure is going to remain this natural monopoly, and that is where these dominant players get their power, and that power allows them to disrupt the regulations that would allow the competition on the service delivery side anyway. And you’re not going to have the competition that is often predicted when people talk about a fourth carrier on the infrastructure side because the cost of building out another network would just be so costly.
FM: There’s really important conversations that are happening in Canada about reforms to the Competition Act. Traditionally, the CRTC has been one that has tried to nuance and as much as I complain about the CRTC is also really care about it as an institution. It’s interesting to see the shift and a more potentially activist Competition Bureau taking some reforms. I don’t mean to critique competition in general, but I think you’re right in that it’s helpful to say that the solutions that we have and the ways we’re reforming the telecommunication sector require a different discussion.
The long history of public utilities and community-owned networking suggests that there’s different ways of approaching this. There’s a spectrum of options that could be out there from what you were talking about MVNOs or more service based competition, where you have a public wholesaler and service-based competitors to something more like public access networks or community access networks. That’s something to acknowledge that we do have in Canada, but it’s one I don’t think we emphasize enough and certainly emphasize a potential solution or direction of this. And that’s a hopeful change.
PM: You can see how competition might be necessary in certain sectors, but that doesn’t mean that every single sector is going to benefit from competition or the narrative of competition, as you’re saying and as this debate around competition policy heats up in Canada.
I want to go back to the outage. In the days after the Rogers outage happened, industry minister Francois-Philippe Champagne met with the telecom executives and gave them 60 days to make an agreement on emergency roaming, mutual assistance during outages, and a better emergency communications plan. The telecom regulator, the CRTC, also said it was going to investigate and would have recommendations of its own. What do you make of the government’s response to the outage? And do you think it goes far enough?
FM: What’s happened over the Liberal mandate is a real deference to these larger telecommunications companies. A lot of our response to the pandemic and how we rolled out bridging this digital divide has been through incentivizing and funding these companies to build or improve their networks, or at least in Quebec Videotron offerings being the sole provider, the new broadband access program.
In some ways, it really, to me, points to a kind of an Omega point, for lack of a better word, that’s been years in the making around concerns over many aspects of oversight of this industry and whether the government has done enough to keep these companies in check, particularly its appointment of Ian Scott as chair of the CRTC has raised some real concerns about how seriously it’s taking this file. Importantly, it has done some limited steps about affordability, but to me it’s hard to see how there’s going to be a way forward because there really has been this reliance on these market forces as the solution to Canadians’ digital divide needs.
In that sense I’m slightly pessimistic about the response. In particular, what the outage emphasizes is the paradigm of “we’re going to have competitors and they’re going to have different networks and it’s going to create resilience in the network” — it didn’t work; it didn’t happen. And apparently, Rogers own guidelines is they had SIM cards from other networks they plugged into their phones to switch and get on a new network. So it speaks to, in some part, this idea that these networks would work together, and the fact that they didn’t when it was probably one of the main mission critical things for them to do, really speaks to the fact that there’s a lot of work to be done to improve how we’re dealing with telecommunications policy in this country.
Frankly, it’s as much a government thing as the companies, and the companies are ultimately accountable to their shareholders. Really the lack of political will when you’re talking about how we’re treating these companies, even treatment so far — you’re being pulled to testify before Parliament — these are a largely symbolic gesture. Rogers could file most of its description of what happens in confidence, and we’ll see how effective the CRTC is actually demanding accountability on this, and what’s the next step?
I think there’s as much pressure on Rogers as there is on government actually showcasing they can have a meaningful interaction. That’s the worrisome part is that if we’re looking for solutions, we see actually that there’s more of a fit between a market-based approach to telecommunications and the companies providing them, and so there’s a kind of symmetry between government and these companies, which will lead to what we’ve had for decades: ineffectiveness and a continued fantasy about the possibility of competition.
PM: This is maybe a big question, but you talked earlier about how, through the 80s and even into the 90s, there was this process of deregulation of telecommunications in Canada to take down some of the restrictions that existed around mergers, acquisitions, other aspects of the telecom industry, and the privatization of public players that existed, and their eventual integration into this telecom oligopoly. Do you think that the deregulation of telecoms was a mistake?
FM: It hasn’t proven what it claimed to do, which is foster competition and see a competitive marketplace. It’s hard to talk about that because there’s so many shifts that have taken place. But shifting, say, from more of a cultural vantage point, it’s been really interesting just how every subsequent new communication technologies have been increasingly private, individually private, in the sense of everybody has their own phone and their own plan, and everybody has their own home internet account.
There’s always been the possibility of the community networks. Canada also had the community access program where the internet was in libraries and schools, and there was a more fulsome discussion of what does being connected and what would the information superhighway — let’s use a throwback term — how would it roll out? And what really has evolved is that when we talk about our public communication infrastructure, largely the fate of that is decided by a few companies, domestic and international now. That really winnows our imagination for these critical infrastructures.
So we’re now at this particular inflection point where our mobile phones are equivalent to the telephone and the telephone was treated as universal service. There’s questions about like frankly, right now, should you be paying tax on your mobile phone? Because it’s an essential service? What are the ways of increasing affordability immediately?
But, in that sense, I feel as though there’s been this shift that’s very obvious after the pandemic, where we all depend on the internet to do our everyday lives. It’s critical infrastructure. And yet, the way of imagining what this infrastructure is going to be is largely Rogers’ new Super Ignite internet connection. That, to me, is ultimately one of the ways they really see a possibility of innovation, particularly innovation in connectivity, being defined in fairly narrow terms.
I know that’s a bit of an abstract answer. But that’s an important one for me because I want to emphasize a loss. I’m an old pirate from the internet. I was really interested in peer-to-peer networking, many of these different ways of envisioning and thinking about what the internet could be. It was never intuitive to me that the internet would be your local Rogers connection that you wouldn’t share. I was living in Toronto, where there were attempts to have wireless cooperatives — shout out to the old Wireless Nomad and Île Sans Fil here in Montreal.
These are ways that we’re imagining, and that becomes harder and harder to do. That’s something that is particularly worrisome. Even more so because what happened here is the complexity of this technology is seen to be so much more advanced that it seems like another very probable outcome of this is that we’re going to have to delegate more and more of these critical security issues to experts away from public purview.
PM: I want to pick up on what you said about the pandemic in just a second, but I wonder, obviously telephone and television and even cable emerged in these moments where there was a greater recognition that the government had a role to play in ensuring that telecommunication services served some kind of a public purpose. But then the intranet emerges in this really neoliberal moment where the idea is that the government needs to largely have a hands-off approach and let the internet develop and let these private companies define what the internet is going to be and how it’s going to work. Do you think that that shapes how we think about the internet and the role of telecommunications in society today in a negative way?
FM: Yeah, and this is something I say with some reluctance to my past naivete, but it’s important to emphasize this link between the design of the internet and a neoliberal approach, and that is at least in one sense where you had the infrastructure and at least in America it was privatized in the 80s. The success of say, the first Silicon Valley was largely through decades prior subsidization of this work. And also innovations that happened elsewhere and America’s own hegemonic influence in interfering in or steering the shaping of what became the international networking protocols.
It’s important then to emphasize that parts of the way the internet evolved were fairly closely connected with this idea of creating markets and marketization, and I think that’s quite baked in to core internet technologies in general. I always think of internet advertising as a great example of what is an idealized neoliberal marketplace where it’s total tire fire, there’s a million different providers that are all doing these little micro transactions, these strange markets are being designed where potentially the market engineers have an advantage in, but no one has enough vantage point to know what’s going on, and I think that’s partially by design.
Now, what we see somewhat in Canada because of the legacy of these infrastructures is not perfect, it’s not idealized competition. In some ways there this gap that we’re going to have competition and we’re going to have this open innovation, and then there’s just the structural nature of telecommunications companies. So it’s different to me a little bit because I think many of the ideas of how the internet works, the idea of internet competition that became associated with the internet, really are out of step with the way that networks are built and rolled out, and he way that many Canadians don’t — if you’re talking about smaller rural remote communities — there’s no incentive to build up multiple networks here.
There really is a tendency towards natural monopolies in this case. So part of that is this rhetoric, and part of that it’s just not about the internet. Rogers is a company that owns many different things. We’ve also encouraged vertical integration of companies so that they’re not just providing telecommunications and networking, but all sorts of things. I always give the example of the Blue Jays. No one in my classes cares, but I lived in Toronto and still have that legacy of like, being a Jays fan. If you think about the Blue Jays, it’s the team, the stadium, the television network, the radio network, the internet service, and the phone could all potentially be owned by the same company.
So if there is a point in that, it’s there’s a kind of neoliberalism in one sense, but adjacent to this idea of kind of governments being hands off and that kind of regulatory liberalism. They’re kind of caught together, but I think it’s that latter one where what we see going on here is there’s been an exception or conventional wisdom that these companies can get bigger and buy bigger things, and that’s going to work out. And it hasn’t in the past. There’s the Bell-Astral merger, and that going and failing, and these questions about being content providers. I think partially where Rogers is in a bind is just how much money they owe the NHL to some degree, and this gets into these really interesting, weird discussions: what are the consequences of letting these companies diversify in potentially different directions where their interests might be competing?
Then really an ultimate question for me is, as a final outcome of this, was this network failure — the fact that all core activities were running through the same infrastructure — the result of network efficiency, or was that actually good network design? That’s a question that still hasn’t been answered, and that could be a very direct answer to how the implication of neoliberalism is that the network was being designed in such a way that resiliency and 100% uptime was maybe a secondary concern to the fact that you could lower the network operation costs and maybe trying to automate, arguably, workers that are running these networks, and shout out to them for getting the network back on so quickly.
That’s an important way we’re saying well, that could be an outcome of regulatory liberalism or neoliberalism where we see the market steering how these networks are being built differently than say, as a public good.
PM: That’s so fascinating. It brings to mind one of the things that the Rogers CEO said when he was at the committee hearing the other day was that one of the things they were going to do with the network was to try to bring in more AI to manage the network or whatever.
I want to build on that answer you gave. During the pandemic, it became undeniably clear that telecom services are essential, as if we didn’t know that before, and there are too many barriers to access from poor connections in parts of the country to high prices that Canadians pay — some of the highest in the world for access to telecom services. Instead of greater competition, is it time to learn from the historical approach that you’ve been talking about to telecommunications and look at treating it as a public utility, with the proper regulation in place, or even making the telecom companies (or at least their infrastructure) part of a Crown Corporation like we still have in Saskatchewan with SaskTel?
FM: I think it really pushes towards that being further on the table. I want to emphasize that we do have community-owned networks and community approaches to internet in Canada already, and I think it’s really important. I learned a lot about this from Cree communities in northern Ontario. K-Net was really important for me to think about how the Internet could be built, and that was something that was largely community-owned, delivered in part through the collaborations with Bell, but you’re talking about a network that was meeting community needs and accountable to the council.
In one sense, we’ve really had innovation quite directly in Canada with Indigenous communities and this is great work being done by the First Mile Connectivity Consortium, Dr. Rob McMahon, as well as Susan O’Donnell and the late Brian Beaton, may he rest in peace. These are all people who helped me think about and really be reminded that when we’re talking about the internet, already in Canada, many communities that have not had access and aren’t in major urban centers have already turned to community, public outcomes and answers.
It’s not as though that shouldn’t be on the table; I think it should be championed as a particular direction. The next step is, as much as we want to talk about a big national thing, in some of these communities, is it opportunities for more municipal wireless or more community or provincial options that could be on the table? There’s a number of different directions that could be coming up here, snd that also gets at where do you want to incentivize change in what’s going to take place here?
For the wireless market, it’s trying to reduce the cost and improve the affordability. I think affordability quite directly is not through competition, but in trying to emphasize affordability you’re making sure that you have to offer, say, mandatory rates or packages, which Ben Klass and Dwayne Winseck have really showed that the CRTC hasn’t been effective in doing that, but there’s one key pressure point. Then you’re also talking about critical questions with internet peering, and the kind of built infrastructure of the internet, and whether there’s enough transparency. The Canadian Internet Registration Authority has really tried to build out Canada’s ISP network, which is a really important part of where are potential public points and public infrastructure for the internet?
So I’m just kind of throwing out some different examples here, but there’s a whole stack — for lack of a better word — of places where we could start thinking about publicly owned, community-owned innovation, in what we call the internet. That’s something which we haven’t advanced very far, and often my worry is the organizations that we do have, particularly the CBC, aren’t that imaginative themselves to really allow for this.
One of the things that I hope, and this is something for maybe listeners to think about is how to advocate and work towards that. The thing I’d stress is it’s not building another mesh network, which is something that I was totally suckered on for years, but it’s really about pushing for state or community action. I really think you’re talking about infrastructure that requires institutions to create, and it’s like, how do you either leverage or lobby the existing institutions we have now to work better in the public interest, or trying to think more strategically about what does it mean to create the kind of organizations that would allow these networks to exist? And that to me, in some ways, I’m hopeful about and I think a lot of the pushes that we’ve already had — eligibility of communities in the Broadband Program — we might see more of a push here, and maybe a more reticence to fund the same companies to do these community initiatives.
PM: So many important points there even though, as you said, it’s a grab bag of issues. But they’re really important to think about.
FM: That’s the challenge to the Rogers outage and what I find really hard to talk about is, you’re talking about wireless, home phone, internet connection, and there’s so many different layers and nuances that are all bundled together. Part of it is this is this convergence argument, so how do you talk about convergence? I think we’re at a stage where there is some way of talking about divergence now, of what are the ways of talking about important structural separations as a first step, and then where are the ways of public possibilities?
We’re not even getting into the internet itself: social media, in many ways, built on and leveraged these ideas and myths of public media, particularly ZeD TV, which Canada’s CBC was really behind, about thinking about being something of YouTube before YouTube. So when we talk about public utilities or public alternatives, the problem runs to whole spectrum, from the core of the internet to the services we use every day.
If you’re a creator, relying on Patreon or Etsy, there’s lots of evidence of how difficult those companies can be to work with and working against creators interests. There’s lots of opportunities for more public nonprofit or community-owned organizations make an intervention. In that sense, if there’s anything, hopefully this gets people excited and motivated to do that necessary work.
PM: I love that. On your point about community networks and public networks and public solutions, it’s always felt weird to me that when we talk about telecom, there’s this discussion that we should have all these options to choose from for internet and mobile service and all these sorts of things. And I think like, in my province, and much of Canada, we have a history of public power delivery, where when you move into somewhere new, you just call up the public utility, and they switch the power on and you don’t need to think about where it’s coming from or the different options that are available for power.
It just always occurred to me like, why shouldn’t telecom be that way? If it’s an essential service as well, why shouldn’t we just have a public provider that gives us our telecom services, instead of having all of these supposed options that are still reliant on the same networks anyway?
FM: The pressure to sell a product, to sell a new high speed internet product, creates real inequities. This is my obligatory plug for the book Internet Daemons, but one of the things I talk about in the book is that there’s a classism that gets built into this where those who can afford high speed, and those that are stuck with slow internet, and they only work because there is fast and there is a slow. That privilege is something that is doled out because of the fact that there’s the optimized and the disoptimized.
Really if you’re thinking about your home internet — what your plan is, how much you’re paying for, what your access is — in many ways, the internet would be simpler were it that there was one or two speeds and there was less complexity about how these plans are being offered and what’s in those plans are not. That really points to how effectively what’s going on here is this idea or need to create products and differentiated products.
Ultimately something which is leading to an internet that’s easy design for and internet that is inclusive, and I think that there’s real issues. This very idea of internet speed is so closely tied up with the need to create privilege and luxury, which you can sell, largely through creating those who are on the budget internet. That’s really something that is at the core, but hard to explain, about what have been some of the consequences of how we’ve treated the internet and why when we talk about a public utility, there’s a lot being discussed there.
Part of that change is not just management, but it’s also cultural change and what we think about when we talk about coordinated infrastructure, because at the end of the day, no one’s complaining about how fast their internet is, they just wanted to work, whether your Zoom cuts out or not. There’s been lots of movement that that could have happened to ensure quality of service and essential access. I could go down a total rabbit hole on latency. But those are things that we could talk more consciously about and talking about, what would be the desires or what would be the goals that we have.
Whether it’s feasible or not, I like this idea that you least are opening up these conversations about what I think is a fundamentally critical problem for society, like peoples living in what we call Canada, to be dealing with: the ways that we envision and builde communication infrastructure. That’s an inherently political problem, and it’s great to see people talking about it differently than we’ve done before.
PM: It’s so fascinating to hear you describe the internet speeds that way. It never really occurred to me, but like thinking back to when I did work in telecom, very few people actually knew what the difference of the different speeds were. They just wanted to know it was going to work well for them, and they’d be able to do what they wanted to do. They had no real conception between, like, what this number meant versus that number, and whether that was going to make much of a difference.
As this outage has happened, and as there has been discussion about what the consequences of that should be, Rogers is also in the process of buying Shaw, which is the fourth largest telecom company in Canada. The Competition Bureau already seems to have concerns about the merger, not to mention industry observers and the general public. Do you think the outage kills the merger once and for all?
FM: I think it’s going to make it nigh impossible to go through. There’s been all kinds of terrible mergers, like the Torstar merger where they shuttered all the newspapers — I forget who they merged with. We’ve had a very lax environment when talking critically about mergers, and the evidence is so strong, it’s hard to imagine this happening.
There’s real governance questions at Rogers too. This is a CEO that ousted members of the board. Members of the Roger’s family were seen at Mar-a-Lago with pictures of the Trump family. After the ouster, his wife sent a cameo video with Brian Cox from Succession. There’s all kinds of bad public optics in here on top of clear evidence this is not in the interest of consumers, and what we’re seeing, interestingly, is language to actually demonstrate the risks.
When we’re talking about affordability or you’re really pushing for coordination issues, you’re seeing not only a shift of why this is a bad idea, but having evidence to point to it being a bad idea. Ultimately, I think that that’s somewhat exciting, although it’s still fairly concentrated, and I think what we’re really clinging on to is just things from being really, really concentrating to being really, really, really concentrated.
It’s important to remember the stakes are high, but also low in some ways, because there’s so much more to be done that it’s important to say that the merger being stopped is a first step to better telecommunications policy in Canada, and better broadcasting policy too for that matter.
PM: Yeah, hopefully it does finally get cancelled after all this time. It seems hard to imagine it going forward at this point, like there would be public outrage if this was able to go through.
FM: It looks politically bad too. At the end of the day, one of the regrettable parts if it does go through is there seems to be a no-win situation for this happening because the political risks are so high. The evidence on the table is that if Rogers built its network so that all functions in a region are going through one hub, and that goes down, that really puts cold water on the idea that adding more customers to that same network design is going to actually be beneficial.
PM: I’ve really enjoyed this conversation that I think has been both like insightful and enlightening, but also kind of mind-expanding in terms of the possibilities that telecommunications could take, instead of not just being a debate about how much competition do we want, but actually what role should the government play in in addressing these problems, and how can we make the telecommunications services that we all rely on better serve the public, better served those of us who are actually relying on these things?
I want to close this conversation with a broader question. We’ve discussed many aspects of telecommunications and what has happened recently with this outage. But are there particular regulations or developments that you’d like to see in the telecom sector that we haven’t discussed in this conversation yet?
FM: One thing that I wanted to pick up on a little bit was your mention of artificial intelligence, because one of the things that I’ve been intervening in in my recent work with my colleague and friend Reza Rajabiu is Bell Canada using an AI system to block fraudulent calls, and I think for benign purposes.
The evidence that we’re able to get and how we were able to participate in that hearing raises really compelling concerns about what the future of telecommunications policy is going to be because were we to participate with full evidence, we would have had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and the way that the system could be explained in public, I don’t think that was adequate. Bell would dispute that, and I really respect the fact that we disagree on this.
But a move towards artificial intelligence raises real critical questions about democratic oversight of telecommunication systems, and whether we actually can know and know enough about how they work to have proper accountability. That’s something which I would like to see, and to see a way of talking about cybersecurity and security issues in a way that could reckon with this tendency towards privacy and confidentiality, which really run against public participation and the function of an institution like the CRTC.
That’s a knot that I’d like to see more discussion on, because I respect that there needs to be better security, but I think the way it’s being framed and how it’s being discussed and the fact that is, again, another luxury really raises some questions about how that industry could grow and change.
The other issue, particularly when we’re talking about AI and automation is the fact that a lot of this is about trying to reduce jobs. So the future of the internet is often described as zero-touch networking, or lights-out operating centers, or AI chatbots for your assistants. The other part of this pressure is that, for folks who are looking on this podcast for these wider issues with artificial intelligence to some of these questions about tech, when we talk about automation, really, there’s a key point of where that automation is taking place in networks, and is that coming at the expense of the workers?
I think the networking engineers and the gurus and all the kind of Unix heads — shout out too — that kept these networks running, their jobs are becoming more precarious, and that really raises some questions. That’s to me, one of the outcomes I’d love to see or know about, is that one of the things that happened to this outage? Was this a network outage that was because there wasn’t enough technicians or the technicians were overworked, or what were the working conditions of those people running that network and were they properly supported?
So that’s when people talk about AI. Many different opinions about AI, but really, I see that as kind of a flag and one that I want people to demand more accountability about how this AI is being offered up as a solution.
Then the last thing is that telecommunications has been one where there’s been a lot of setbacks, and I think that there’s still a lot of potential. The opportunities in Canada, particularly with a common carrier tradition, really are important moments for advocacy and change. We have organizations like Open Media that have also been pushing for this. It’s something that you can be involved with and you can get engaged with, and that’s opportunities to participate with the CRTC in your local communities, talking to counselors. Those in Canada who have an ability of participating, I really encourage you to do so because this is something that I think is important, and it’s something that can really benefit from more public concern.
It really is illuminating to me, having nobody caring about these issues and being stuck feeling like I’m just insane or a crackpot — I still might be — but the fact that at least other people are concerned about this warms my heart, and I would really love to see more engagement around these issues. Hopefully, if anything comes out of this, it’s that people take it seriously and people care about it enough to get involved and get engaged.
PM: I think those are some great points to end our conversation on. Fenwick, thank you so much for taking the time to walk us through all this and for all those insightful points.
FM: Paris, it’s been a delight to actually get into this and have a real conversation. I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.