Canada was recently taught a valuable lesson about networks and systems fundamentals when it lost nearly 1/3 of its telecom capacity in a single day. What this outage teaches us about networks and systems is worth paying attention to.
What would happen if you couldn’t access your phone? What if you couldn’t withdraw money from a bank machine? Imagine not being able to call an emergency line? If you were one of the millions of customers of Rogers (a major Canadian telecommunications company) last week, you would have said ‘yes’ to all of those.
It wasn’t only Rogers’ customers; everyday Canadians couldn’t access their banking or had to pay with cash or (maybe) credit cards for goods. Some people couldn’t cross bridges between provinces or even enter the country altogether. Many 911 (emergency line) services were down, too.
I was told by a restaurant I’d had a reservation for that I could only pay by credit card.
Network Design Effects
Who are you connected to? What kind of relationship do you have with others? When we connect in a meaningful way that generates value and influence, we’re networked. We’re also in a system. When I’m part of a system, my choices and actions affect others in that system. That effect might be indirect, minor, or indeterminate, but it’s not to be ignored.
What Rogers dealt with was a systems design issue where a single failure caused a catastrophic impact on the entire network. The issue — beyond the technical parts — is that the network wasn’t designed with complexity in mind. In complex systems, there is a recognition of this interconnection and interdependence of the parts and the whole system. This system wasn’t designed with that in mind.
The problem goes beyond one company and their network; it speaks to how governments and countries set up things like telecommunications networks. The private network models in Canada mean that Rogers users couldn’t rely on another provider’s network. Privatization can do this because the network design is set up for shareholders and current users, not the public.
The situation in Canada could have been different if there was some kind of oversight and ability to design for the function of the more extensive societal system. Banking, healthcare, immigration and customs and business enterprise all rely on telecommunications providers. Why can’t they share network capacity? We do this every time we roam with a mobile phone in another country.
A major problem with this situation is that the public good and function were not given the same priority as other needs. The users — the Canadian public — and how they were connected were ignored. This isn’t just a telecommunications issue; we see this in everything from the supply chain to how we handle the environmental impact of our goods and services.
This is a design lesson.
As things connect more and complexity rises, we need to learn them. The world cannot afford preventable outages when lives, livelihoods, and the planet might be at stake.