The Rogers outage over the summer signals the problem with corporate media monopolies on our society

Image by Onur Binay via Unsplash

The Rogers outage on July 8 that impacted the whole of Canada is the product of the fact that corporate media monopolies run amok. It’s a problem that was made possible by North American legislation stemming from the 90s which are in need of amendments. 

In early July, cell services and Interac technology stopped working nationwide as an outage caused by the centralization of Rogers wireline and wireless networks ensued. One network going out caused both to come down resulting in the loss of satellite connection and thus haulting a host of services for users. Since then, Rogers has begun work to physically separate the two networks so they can’t create mutual outages if one goes down. This plan will cost $261 million and it will take up to 18 months to build the infrastructure necessary to split the lines. 

However, this will not solve the larger issue surrounding the outage; that being the consolidation of telecommunication services in the hands of a few massive corporations. 

Big fish telecoms are a huge issue because they undercut why the emerging telecom industry, in concert with the recently public access internet, were deregulated in the mid to late 90s in the first place. 

Key pieces of legislation such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, stipulates that by allowing the merging of broadcasting and telecommunications markets and allowing any communication provider to enter the business and compete with others this would drive up competition. Similarly in Canada the Telecommunications Act of 1993 placed the same emphasis on creating market competition as we switched from a governmental monopoly on telecommunications. 

Canada’s Federal Communications Commission, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission and the courts have seen a reduction of regulation over the last three decades with fewer incumbents and lower barriers of entry into telecom markets. The result: large media conglomerates such as Rogers and Bell, which deal in internet, specialty channels, radio, television, satellite and news stations corner the market and actually drive down competition. 

For example, Shaw, another of Canada’s largest media entities, was to be acquisitioned by Rogers before the merger was called into question by Canada’s Competition Tribunal due to the outage. In fact, the reasoning for those two key pieces of deregulatory legislation in Canada mentioned above was the fear of government centralization being too concentrated and not giving users options for when, say, there’s an outage. Both acts amend previous acts from the early 20th century — the Railway Act of 1906 in Canada and the Communications Act of 1934 signed by Roosevelt in the U.S. — as these acts had relations to the railway industry which was another key industry that involved intra-state/province commerce which could easily be manipulated for profit at the behest of other states/provinces without regulation creating a fairness amongst carriers’s pricing. 

This was the dynamic that heralded the Communication Act of 1934. A Texas railway was charging more for carriers going outside of Texas than in the state, and in Houston, East & West Railway Co. V. United States the Supreme Court ruled that the Interstate Commerce Commision would have jurisdiction over prices for all common carriers. Roosevelt used this centralized regulatory plan as a blueprint for the Communications Act as a way of making broadcasting technologies accessible between state borders and fairly priced. The precedent that these railway acts set for open access to goods would continue to be the model for telecom services in North America until the above mentioned deregulatory acts of the 90s. 

Ironically, as seen in the Rogers outage this summer, the issue of governmental monopoly being risky due to outages and a lack of competitive freedom that lead to the 90s telecom acts have become the leading issues with these massive media conglomerates. Rogers has cornered the market, and as their lack of infrastructural oversight has revealed, the profit incentive did not make for better services. 

Additionally, the convergence of telecommunications technologies has dissolved the barriers of television and telephoning. The smartphone acts as a great synthesizer of these once separate mediums and due to this, news is increasingly disconnected from one’s boots on ground culture and is a melting pot of news and entertainment as seen in social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube. 

An older family member of mine recently called the internet a “soulless morass” and even though my Gen Z credentials tell me to reject this cynicism, it’s not hard to see why this is increasingly the attitude of older generations. All these media that were once separated are dissolved as the corporate merging of communication services see no substantive intervention, consequently producing hyper commodities in hypermarkets and a non-stop, titillating and incendiary model for news that forestalls meaning making and ultimately history.

Famous French media scholar, often referred to as the “high priest of postmodernism,” Jean Baudrillard, examined this dissolution of mass media in his work. In a chapter titled “The Implosion of Meaning in Media” in his influential book Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard says the following about electronic mass media,

“Behind this exacerbated mise-en-scène of communication, the mass media, the pressure of information pursues an irresistible destruction of the social. Thus information dissolves meaning and dissolves the social, in a sort of nebulous state dedicated not to a surplus of innovation, but, on the contrary, to total entropy… 

There is no more media in the literal sense of the word (I’m speaking particularly of electronic mass media)—that is, of a mediating power between one reality and another. Neither in content, nor in form. Strictly speaking this is what implosion signifies. The absorption of one pole into another, the short circuiting of every differential system of meaning, the erasure of distinct terms and oppositions, including that of the medium and of the real—thus the impossibility of any mediation, of any dialectical intervention between two or from one to the other. Circularity of all media effects.”

While Baudrillard takes his summation of electronic mass media to a fatalistic conclusion, that “it is useless to dream of a revelation through form, because the medium and the real are now a single nebula whose truth is indecipherable,” a notion perhaps reflected in Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside which is a recent popular cultural text that is obsessed with the indecipherability of literality and parody, meaning and dissolution of meaning and the age old philosophical distinction of appearance versus reality when it comes to the social media age. 

With that being said, though his theories are prescient for our age of technical alienation, the situation need not be as fatalistic as Baudrillard makes it out to be. Especially as younger generations are becoming aware of the negative impacts that the internet has had on them. The breaking up of the telecom industries could mean less media synthesizing and dissolution of meaning. This is a problem that only regulation or a public-oriented centralized apparatus of telecoms can mitigate—and should mitigate. 

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