Canadian National Broadband Lines

Canadian_National_Railways_first_logo.svg.pngIf there's one lesson we need to take from yesterday's near-complete outage of the internet for Rogers, Rogers-subsidiary customers, and network providers that relied on Rogers' network, the Internet is now as important and potentially disruptive a piece of national infrastructure as our power system. For twelve hours, stores and restaurants could only operate cash-only. More disturbingly, government services such as ArriveCAN, Service Canada, and some 9-1-1 networks stopped operating. If nothing else, Rogers highlighted the widespread impact a cyberattack on our broadband network could have. So, how do we adjust to that?

Clearly, there need to be redundancies built into the system, but redundancy is the opposite of efficiency, and the great glorious skill that capitalist businesses trumpet for their shareholders, if not their customers, is efficiency. They generate the most revenue for the least amount of expenses. They invest as little capital as possible for the biggest return on investment. By their nature, they are incentivized to cut corners, to put all their eggs in one basket, and not to consider every possible point of failure and what it could do if it failed. And you see the result.

On Twitter, yesterday, some people questioned the desirability of having private capitalist enterprises manage vital public infrastructure. Telecoms used to be a public venture, so maybe they should be so again. Maybe it was time to nationalize Rogers. I'm not sure if that's the best solution, though. While there are benefits to customers (or, to put another word on it, citizens) to operate something as a public service rather than a profitable enterprise, replacing one monopoly with another encourages the same sort of complacency that marks Rogers and Bell's management of Canada's Internet. And Canada used to have a different solution.

When a mass of railroad bankruptcies in 1916-17 turned Canadian Pacific into the single profitable transcontinental railroad in the country, the Canadian government didn't react by nationalizing the new monopoly, or even opening the door to competition from American transcontinental railways. Instead, the government of Canada acquired the failed competitors (Canadian Northern, Grand Trunk Pacific, and so on) and merged them together to create Canadian National Railways, a crown corporation that operated at cost to run in competition with the CP monopoly. This maintained the competition that encouraged innovation, better customer service, and kept prices lower. Similar principles forged Air Canada (before it was privatized) to run in competition with CP Air, or the CBC to maintain a public broadcaster alongside various private radio and television networks.

We have slipped away from this approach in the intervening decades. Crown corporations have been privatized and regulations lifted. However, capitalists usually agree that competition is good, and they like to say that monopolies are bad (although they tend not to say this when they themselves own the monopoly), so if the marketplace has spoken and created a monopoly within a sector -- especially one where there is considerable public interest involved -- then government intervention to maintain competition rather than end it is a solution that we know has worked in the past.

Today, the Internet provider Shaw is fading in the marketplace. Rogers has reached out to try and merge it into its operations. After yesterday, many agree this shouldn't happen. But rather than let Shaw limp along to obscurity or bankruptcy, maybe Shaw should be acquired by the Canadian government, its mandate expanded to offer decent Internet service at cost or at modest profit across Canada. They could become the basis for our government to build more redundancies into our critical broadband network, protecting our payment systems, our 9-1-1 networks, everyone, should something take out one of the other networks. And Bell and Rogers would also benefit from this deal. Shaw -- now Canadian National Broadband -- could lease portions of its new national broadband lines to Bell and Rogers at cost, for the benefit of the profitable companies and, more importantly, their customers. Us.

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