Many Canadians have experienced sleepless nights in the weeks and months since coronavirus turned our world upside down. I know I have — but for different reasons. I’m a telecoms network engineer. As office towers, schools and community spaces emptied out and millions of Canadians sheltered at home, both our wireless and fixed networks were put to the test. Social-distancing rules abruptly ended in-person exchanges with almost everybody but the people under your own roof. The result? Unprecedented spikes in everything from the use of 1-800 numbers and conference bridges to video streaming and online activity.
For me, my company’s team and the teams of our telecom peers, late nights that stretched into early mornings became the norm in a collective effort to ensure our networks kept working for Canadians. So far, our connections have held fast. Comparing notes with my peers around the world, often during midnight phone calls, confirms that our networks, already world-leading in download speeds, are even stronger and more reliable than before COVID-19 — in large part because of a shared desire among Canada’s telecoms to set aside competitive differences for the good of the country.
In March, for instance, a sudden 50 per cent surge in cellphone and landline calls from workers sent home in the first weeks of the pandemic congested connections between carriers, resulting in increased busy signals and dropped calls. We and our peers worked to resolve the issue through a series of network upgrades that were anything but regular maintenance. Between us, we engineered and built out a year’s worth of wireline voice network capacity in March alone. We added almost 200,000 additional access links between our networks (known as “trunks”), giving us the ability to process two million additional calls per hour. Essentially, equipment upgrades that were scheduled for 2020 were sped up to allow for an entire year’s worth of work in just a couple weeks.
In all fairness, we had a head start on our planning that proved critical. As we watched the pandemic take its toll on China and Europe, we understood what was coming and prepared accordingly. Our whole industry stepped up to modify our network to handle the migration of large amounts of internet traffic into residential neighbourhoods from downtown areas. Upgrades that would normally be negotiated between parties over several months took place in a matter of days, and our joint monitoring of the points where different companies’ infrastructure intersects allowed us to handle the various pressures coming at our respective networks.
By pooling our resources and focusing on the needs of Canadians, we’ve been able to provide support and continuity to businesses and residents, alike. A recent example is the work done to repair an Edmonton dental surgery office severely damaged after a fire. Telcos were among the first on scene to restore connection to fibre optics. When the doors do safely open again the surgery will be ready to get back to work, just like the millions of Canadians now working and learning from home.
It’s not clear what other infrastructure could withstand such a flood in usage without buckling. In Ontario’s infamous 2003 blackout millions of people in the Toronto region were plunged into darkness and chaos for days after a combination of hot weather and heavy demand for electricity caused strained power grids to short out. By contrast, our networks stood up to the sudden demand without slowdown or buffering. Two decades of long-term investment in network infrastructure by publicly traded telecom companies meant we were prepared to sustain peak pressure on our systems.
Coming out of the pandemic, we need to ensure Canada both maintains its world-leading network speed and reliability and deploys spectrum in a way that benefits as many Canadians as possible. Rural Canadians, in particular, need better network connectivity and access to broadband if they are to successfully reboot their economies and lives. Our industry needs to think digital and mobile first and maintain the momentum established during COVID-19 to continue the digitization of our economy in ways that deliver value to Canadians while prioritizing their privacy. We have a diminishing window of opportunity to ready Canada for what will be the greatest economic recovery in our lifetimes. When we succeed, it will be because we have held to the principles that have brought us this far.
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