A razor’s edge from chaos

As I write this, there are digital outages across the country affecting millions of people and a ton of businesses, because Rogers, one of the big three telecom companies in Canada, is down. This means not just that people who have Rogers as a cell phone carrier can’t get online or make calls or send texts, but that entire chains of businesses who use Rogers service also can’t use their PIN pads to process purchases.

This has prompted many businesses to post hastily-written notices on their doors that they can only do cash transactions.

But here’s the thing: With our still being in the midst of a pandemic where for months at a time many businesses weren’t taking cash, so I (and many others) got used to not having any on me, what if I don’t have cash? My wife and daughter are headed out to visit family for a couple of days, and when they were grabbing lunch on the road, because the chain they went to was one of the many who use Rogers and thus couldn’t process payments by credit or debit cards, my wife had to scrounge in the car to find the change needed to get themselves a couple of hamburgers.

I had some bills on me so drove out and met them and gave them what I could because we don’t know what businesses this may affect on their drive or when it will be resolved.

And there’s part of the problem: When will this be resolved? For the last ten hours as of this writing, all connectivity of one of the biggest companies in the country is simply gone. That doesn’t sound like an easy fix to me. It’s not like a trainee accidentally leaned on a big, red button that caused this and someone just needs to reset a breaker on the electrical panel. It’s a fundamental flaw somewhere so deep in one of their most primary systems that it going sideways has stopped everything that the company does.

So what happens if this rolls into a matter of not just hours but days? Weeks? Months? I’d assume that wouldn’t happen, but Rogers has been around for decades and surely has a highly complex interconnected business. If there’s something that’s gone so wrong that every service of theirs has failed, it may be a lengthy recovery process to get anything–let alone everything–back to operating at full capacity again.

And meanwhile, what do customers do, along with those businesses that have Rogers as a part of their operation? Only dealing in cash works in the short-term for those who have it. But companies may not have enough money on-site to keep doing that for days or weeks, given how many businesses rely on digital monetary transactions these days and thus only having an appropriately tweaked amount of liquid cash on hand to operate with (including where I work; I may start my shift in a couple of hours to find out that we’re only doing cash purchases for now).

Your initial reaction, like mine, may be to simply go get more cash to ensure it’s in-pocket for grocery buys. But ATMs are also affected. Because many of them use Rogers. So no getting money from at least some, maybe many, ATMs, either. Going to a bank in-person would be the best logical step, and I may do that myself shortly, but not everyone can get to a bank. And if everyone who can do so must be there to get money, then the line-ups and wait times will increase, thereby reducing how many people will be able to get money that way.

Then my What If…? writer brain kicks in, as it does, taking what’s going on even farther.

If Telus and especially Bell, the other two big telecoms in Canada, were to go down at the same time as Rogers, it wouldn’t take long for things to start getting chaotic. Very few people would be able to contact anyone else. 95% of Canadians (at a wild but probably pretty good guess) wouldn’t be able to call or text each other nor get online to email; not casually, not to verify each others’ safety, and not for emergencies. Business that rely on digital communication to operate–electrical companies, home and liquid gas suppliers, food shipments, transit systems, etc.–could be frozen. The impacts span from minimal irks to essential systems.

There are people around the globe who survive just fine without technology, of course, even in this century. But those are people who perhaps haven’t come to use technology, let alone rely on it. The development of all these conveniences and our growing dependency on it is all fine and well when it’s operating properly. But what happens if–strike that, when–it doesn’t?

All of which will hopefully be a wake-up call to everyone, myself included, to not just assume (as is so easy to do) that everything fundamental to our lives that operates as it normally does, always will. And to maybe have some plans in place for what happens if they don’t.

I’m not talking going all prepper and holing up somewhere, homesteading a farm and hunting for food and waiting for society to collapse (“Hey, kiddo… you know how a week ago you were stressing about your upcoming report card marks? Well great news: You don’t have to worry about that ever again. Here’s a filter straw, a case of .22-calibre ammo for the rifle you’re going to learn to shoot, and a guide on how to dress a deer. Road trip!”) But maybe we… I dunno… stop encouraging only competition among telecom businesses and they start striking some backup deals with each other? Call me crazy, but what if Rogers had a deal with Bell where if (*ahem* when) their service goes down, their customers can seamlessly piggyback onto Bell systems while Rogers straightens everything out? They’d agree to pay Bell a fee for the time/bandwidth/whatever was used in the interim, flip the switch for all their clients to get back onto Rogers once they can, and not only is no one necessarily any the wiser, but most importantly, aware of the brief switch or not, everyone and everything that primarily relies on Rogers will still be able to operate. Bell could do the same in return, of course. We (and millions of others) would be hosed right now if this was a Bell issue and not a Rogers issue. While we’ve had both companies for multiple services in the past and find we prefer Bell, we’d of course take Rogers in an instant vs having zero services. I’d think most others would agree.

And assuming the big companies continue to not want to play well together, maybe taking some prepper baby steps wouldn’t be a terrible idea. Have some liquid cash in the house for a couple of weeks of food and supplies. Maybe stock up a little on essential items that have a long shelf-life. And I wonder if we’d get a discount on a bulk order of filter straws…