Waiting for your telco to really fix what ails our telecommunications system?

Don’t hold your breath. The telcos only care about profit, the CRTC only cares about the telcos and Ottawa only cares about sounding like it cares.

Two workers are seen near an ASPLUNDH truck and a tree leaning on a wire. They're wearing orange safety gear. One of them is on top of the truck.
Workers tend to a tree leaning on wires on Oak Street in Halifax after Fiona, on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. — Photo: Zane Woodford

“TV Providers Ask Regulator to Raise Basic Cable Cost by 12%”

September 28, 2022

It was not a good public relations moment for Canada’s telecommunications companies.

It was Wednesday, September 28, just four days after post-tropical storm Fiona, a hurricane by any other name, had ripped through Atlantic Canada, not only cutting off electricity but also landline and cell service, as well as the internet — all critical infrastructure in twenty-first century Canada — for hundreds of thousands of Nova Scotians.

Many were then still waiting, less and less patiently, for their service to be restored.

It was also the day a frustrated Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston publicly blasted Canada’s telecommunications companies for their “unacceptable” failure not only to deliver service but also public information at a time when “there are Nova Scotians who can’t call 9-1-1 or connect with loved ones during this difficult time.”

Houston said, “not one telecommunications company was initially willing to send a representative” to the province’s emergency management office’s coordination centre where key critical infrastructure partners were collaborating on a response to the storm.

Lee Bragg, executive vice-chair of Eastlink, said he understood the premier’s frustration but was dismissive of the complaint. “It’s not valuable to put somebody in the EMO who doesn’t know anything,” he told reporters that same day.

Uh… an aside. As someone who didn’t get his Eastlink cell, landline, internet, TV or security services back for six days — and had a kindly customer service rep tell me in the late middle of my outage that, yes, service seemed to be out in my area but no, he didn’t know when service might be restored — Bragg’s confidence in his own operation to handle the problems seems, well, a bit misplaced.

Another aside. When my landline service was finally restored, I discovered a number of canned messages on my phone from Nova Scotia Power apologizing for the unavoidable outage and predicting when my services might be restored. They weren’t. So perhaps it didn’t matter that I didn’t get those wrong messages until after I had my power back.

But I digress.

Later that same Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland chimed in, telling the House of Commons about her plan to meet with the telecoms that evening to read them the riot act. “I will be insisting on better service for the people of Atlantic Canada and for Quebeckers, and on a plan to ensure this never happens again.”

Somehow, all of that occurred on the very same day the cable TV tentacles of Canada’s oligopic telecommunications industry — can you say Bell Canada, Cogeco Communications, Saskatchewan Telecommunications, and Bragg Communications (aka) Eastlink? — asked for a 12 per cent increase in its cheapest cable TV package.

And they declared they wanted that increase to apply to their competitors — even those who aren’t part of the applications. How nice. Raise your prices, and make sure no one else is able to offer a better deal.

But I digress. Again.

The last time I covered a CRTC hearing as a reporter was sometime in the early 1970s when the so-called regulator was busy divvying up the fledgling but sure-to-be lucrative Canadian cable television business among a small number of friends of the governing Liberal party.

Today’s privately owned, Nova Scotia-based Eastlink, in fact, is the much merged, submerged and cleansed bastard child of a number of those 50-year-old acts of political intercourse.

While the patronage today is far less blatantly partisan, the ongoing cozy connections between the regulator and the regulated are perhaps more insidious. Current CRTC Chair Ian Scott was exonerated recently after an ethics investigation into his bar meeting-celebration with a newly appointed Bell executive, with whom he apparently met often but was who was not, he insisted, a “friend.”

Certainly, we can’t depend on the CRTC to defend the public interest when the private interests of the telecoms hang in the balance.

Not a digression. According to documents filed with the CRTC, Eastlink’s profit before interest and taxes last year increased 20.4 per cent to $288.1 million.

And they couldn’t afford to send even one executive — or better, someone who actually knows what’s going on — to the EMO’s storm coordination centre. Or invest some of those profits in figuring our ways to keep its operations operating for more than a few stuttering hours after an outage, instead of simply throwing up its hands and blaming Mother Nature.

Nothing we can do. Nothing to see here. Move along.

One of the most interesting and instructive stories I read in the aftermath of Fiona — once I was able to access the internet again — was Victoria Wellands’s piece, “What Canada Can Learn from How the U.S. Handles Cell Outages in Hurricanes” on CBC.ca

For good reasons, we don’t often look to the US for advice when it comes to corporate oversight, but Harold Feld, a senior vice-president at Public Knowledge, a tech policy non-profit based in Washington, D.C., makes an excellent case for doing so in this case.

It’s up to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to keep telecom companies in check after destructive storms, Feld told the CBC. “If you still have outages that are a week or longer then the CRTC really needs to find out why.”

The CRTC’s American counterpart is the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC.

It conducts a post-mortem after every major storm and “created regulations that ensure that the next time a similar storm strikes, we don’t have the same things go wrong.”

In Atlantic Canada, there was Juan. And then there was Dorian. Do you think the CRTC really learned — or applied — lessons from those storms? What about the recent catastrophic Rogers outages? Do you have faith that the CRTC’s “investigation” will lead anywhere? How about the one now set to begin after Fiona?

I thought so.

In the US, Feld told the CBC new technologies — including ‘Cell on Light Truck (COLTs),” portable cellular towers that can be deployed where they’re needed when regular towers get knocked out of service, satellite portable units that can connect to a network via a satellite and even flying systems attached to drones  — have been created in response to findings by the FCC and the pressure that follows for action.

“There’s a feedback loop that encourages industry to invest in these technologies and safeguards,” Feld said, “but they don’t happen unless the FCC pushes them.”

The FCC has also set up a system requiring wireless companies to send information to the regulator about outages on a county-by-county basis and then shares that publicly on its own network.

The CRTC? Not so much. Based on my experience, even Eastlink’s customer service reps didn’t have much real-time information. And when I tried to use its Chat option to text with a real person, it had shut down. No information on when it might be operational again.

In her report, Welland also quoted Daniel Tsai, who teaches law, business and technology at the University of Toronto. He suggested requiring telcos to invest in more resilient, self-powered cell tower infrastructure. “The best solution is prevention and to ensure we have the means in place and a plan in place to address these emergencies, as opposed to waiting after the fact and cleaning up the mess,” Tsai said.

Too late for any of that when it comes to Fiona. We are still cleaning up, still asking why.

Remember Chrystia Freeland’s emergency meeting with the telcos, the one in which she said she would be “insisting on better service… and on a plan to ensure this never happens again.”

Well, here’s the telco’s Pollyanna take on what happened at the meeting.

Eastlink told CBC it “welcomed the opportunity to share the reality of what’s happening” in Atlantic Canada, including how the company prepared and collaborated with other providers to get services back online.

Rogers said it saw the meeting as an “opportunity” to tell the government how telecommunications companies worked together during the storm.

We can’t possibly expect the shareholder and profit-driven telcos to invest in solutions unless the CRTC makes them. And we can’t hope for action from the corporate-cosey CRTC unless Ottawa forces them to act in the public interest.

“Instead of just talk,” as Daniel Tsai put it, “we need to translate that into action and have the federal government take a leadership role, tell specifically what the telcos need to do.”

I won’t hold my breath.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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