VEZINA: Telephone landlines and the perfect storm

Landlines that use copper wire instead of fibre optics technology will be decommissioned, the only question is when

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I received a lot of feedback on my most recent column about the phasing out of telephone landlines, so a brief follow-up.

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First, a clarification.

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It is not a matter of whether landlines that use copper wire instead of fibre optics technology – also know as “Plain Old Telephone Service” or “POTS” – are going to be decommissioned.

They are. It is simply a matter of how fast it’s going to happen.

Bell is the only service that provides POTS and it has put significant resources into transitioning its customers off those lines quickly.

They have multiple help pages focused on copper network decommissioning, so it’s going to happen.

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If their customers want to stop this transition, at least for themselves, the government will have to step in and the public will have to pay for it.

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That will carry with it all the relevant pros and cons of the public paying the bill for critical infrastructure.

I received many questions relating to the issue of energy infrastructure and impending disasters.

For context, there is an important concept in disaster risk called the “perfect storm.”

Disasters primarily occur during the conditions of a perfect storm.

When that happens, multiple failures of a system designed to prevent disasters occur simultaneously – failures that are usually considered in hindsight to have been avoidable.

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This is the kind of statement you often hear after such a disaster:

“It was a perfect storm. If any one of these specific things hadn’t happened, the disaster would likely have been avoided.”

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So how does that relate to copper network landlines and communications during an emergency?

The perfect storm scenario in this case would be a major power outage occurs, communication systems fail and the impact is large enough to classify it as a disaster.

This includes everything bad that could possibly happen – lives lost, physical harm and economic damage.

Here are some of the things that can occur simultaneously, risking a perfect storm in these circumstances.

1. The communication system is more dependent on electricity. This increases the consequences of any given outage.

2. The communication system is now wholly dependent on the internet, when it was not previously. This increases the consequences of any given outage.

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3. The electrical grid is undergoing increased strain due to demand rising faster than generation can occur. The societal transition to electric vehicles is one of the reasons for this. It will increase the likelihood of outages over time until supply catches up to demand. It may also increase the severity of outages, although that is a complex issue which is difficult to ascertain with certainty.

4. The distribution of the electrical network itself is vulnerable. It is not just the production of electricity that is relevant. It’s whether the grid has the ability to distribute it to match demand. All the risks associated with example three also apply here.

Fibre optics technology will ultimately spell the end of landline telephones.
Fibre optics technology will ultimately spell the end of landline telephones. Getty Images/iStock Photo

The main solution Canada appears to be adopting is using Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet and communication service as the main backup.

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Some municipalities are already integrating Starlink as their primary communication hardware for emergency services, and are dropping other backups.

This service still requires on-site backup power generation, which is not realistic for all Canadians.

It also raises the concern about having an international third party responsible for a country’s emergency communication infrastructure.

In 2022, for example, Musk said he refused Starlink service to Ukraine because he did not want to support a surprise attack on Russian naval vessels based at the Crimean port of Sevastopol, fearing he would be complicit in a major escalation of the conflict.

Regardless of one’s opinions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Ukraine’s response, why would any country want to put itself in a position where a foreign corporation could simply say “no,” for any reason, and shut down its critical infrastructure?

It is one thing if there is no other alternative, but Canada has alternatives.

– Alex Vezina is the CEO of Prepared Canada Corp, teaches Disaster and Emergency Management at York University and is the author of Continuity 101. He can be reached at [email protected].

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