The sound of silence in last Friday’s cellphone service outage in Atlantic Canada was deafening, costly and potentially deadly. It also raised serious questions about what backup systems are in place to safeguard and protect the region’s telecommunications system.
The Bell Aliant outage that struck several parts of the region should be treated as a wake-up call for many of us and an opportunity to learn valuable lessons.
The problem was a damaged fibre-optic line in Quebec. It placed parts east in digital limbo, as mobile phone, text and data service was out for more than four hours. The outage primarily affected customers on the Bell network, including Bell, Telus, Virgin and Koodo.
The outage hit businesses and hampered emergency communications, airports and other services. This led to flight delays, some consumers couldn’t use debit and credit cards and some TD Bank branches temporarily closed.
Eddy Ng, professor of organizational behaviour and the F.C. Manning chair in economics and business at Dalhousie University, recommends businesses “include telecommunications in their business recovery plans.”
He suggests companies might want to build in redundancies and managers should ensure employees know what to in a communications breakdown by providing a plan for call lists, customer notices and policies for hours of operations or reduced services.
Speaking to The Canadian Press, Eamon Hoey, a management consultant in Toronto, said the breakdown of Bell’s system due to cuts in crucial fibre optic links raises questions about whether there is sufficient backup. “We need better networks. We need more robust networks. This case in the Atlantic provinces suggests we don’t have it.”
The breakdown on a Friday before a long weekend affected emergency services in some parts of the region. It created widespread cellular telephone breakdowns on Telus, Bell, Virgin and Koodo. It interrupted internet and some land line services for about four hours.
In the wake of the outage, which began in the late morning and ended about 3 p.m., emergency agencies in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick plan to hold talks with Bell.
Michael Cada, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Dalhousie University, has suggested a second network, or a backup method, such as a satellite system, should be available.
For its part, Bell issued a short statement saying it is investigating and there were multiple breaks in the system caused by a third-party contractor.
We all need to treat this as a serious wake-up call. Contingency plans need to created or updated and firmly put into place. Hopefully something similar will not happen again. But if it does, we need a back-up plan at the ready.