Bell Canada Demonstrates Fragile Communications System

FTLComm - Tisdale
July 18, 1999

On Friday morning as I posted the first part of Ensign and went to pick up my email I discovered that the DNS server that handles our email was not working. I immediately called my son Tim to see if his server had crashed as that would explain my problem. Tim said he had just phoned MTS (Manitoba Telephone System) about the same problem and they were at a loss to explain what had happened.

It was much later in the day that we discovered the problem. A minor fire had broke out in a Bell Canada switching location in down-
town Toronto. The firemen
in attempting to contain the mostly smoke and electrical fire, cut off power to the facility including the back up alternate power supply. The switches in the station went dormant and so did most of the commerce in Canada.

The various data and telephone lines running through that switch location, were by Bell's accounts, about 120,000 subscribers, but it is what is carried on those lines that made the impact so profound. All of Canada's banking and credit card verification systems are routed through those lines. The main backbone of the the Internet in Canada ran through those switches and almost all of Toronto's stock exchange business relies upon this facility. From eleven, Toronto time until 5:00 that afternoon, Canada was back in 1950 or so, but without the paper infrastructure that made things work then.

Some analysis smiled wryly and pointed out to this little incident and said this is what January 1st could look like.

The main issues related to the amount we all depend upon electronic data communications. When we began our company Tim and Andrew gave it the name Faster Than Light Communications because at the time they were working on an Internet Service Provider project and thought connecting the company name with the Star Trek series and the technology that relied so heavily upon pressing things to the limits, was a good idea. In the fall of 1994 it was clear that the telephone as we knew it, was being transformed into something far more complex and the use we were making of those lines and switches would vastly alter the way things are.

The growth and reliance upon Faxes for business was already replacing postal services and the Internet with all of its various features would push the envelop even further. The banks had discovered that they could cut payroll and expand their services with two things, ATM (automatic teller machines) and credit cards. Both of these rely completely on dedicated, or call-up telephone service, to verify and carry out the transaction.

What wasn't planned, was that all of the banks and credit card companies would run everything through the hub of downtown Toronto, through the same small telephones switch system. With it knocked out, the system and all of its features collapsed.

The nature of the Internet as it was designed by the American military establishment, was to work as a self repairing net, if a site in the system fries then the network just takes another path. For reasons yet unknown, this did not happen Friday afternoon as Bell, who is gobbling up most of Canada's telecommunications companies including SaskTel, is routing everything through existing networks and as it has always operated, doing this to keep its profits up and costs down.

We now know that the economy of North America is now entirely dependent on telephone lines and switches. Without a doubt the weakest link.