Remembering That OTHER Outage

Toronto Blackout

When Canada’s biggest mobile provider goes down, even if only for a few hours, it’s a very big deal. I’m hoping that the Rogers outage this past Wednesday was only a minor inconvenience to anyone reading this. As I understand it the data network wasn’t affected, which is a good thing.

Outages certainly suck, and today I’d like to send you into your holiday weekend with a little story about the largest such event that I’ve experienced, the great Northeast blackout of 2003 — where it was the mobile network that prevailed even when the electrical grid went down.

Late in the afternoon of Thursday, August 14th, 2003 I was futzing around on my laptop when the WiFi stopped working. I thought it was an issue with my laptop, and it was only after I rebooted a couple of times that I saw it was running on battery power, despite being plugged in. My smartphone of the day was Handspring’s Treo 270, which happened to be sitting on the table beside me. When I finally thought to check a WAP news site — remember WAP? — I realized what was happening.

Despite a massive power outage across Ontario and the Northeastern United States my mobile service from Fido was unaffected. If I remember correctly landline phones were also still working. This was good because most people still had landlines but bad because they also had cordless phones, which were now quite useless.

It was business as usual for my Treo, though. I can’t remember if I could tether to my laptop or not — somehow I got out a blog post later that same evening — but in short order the executive decision was made to re-purpose my more powerful computer as an extended battery for my phone. And with that I set about calling friends and family to make sure they were okay, and to fill them in on what was going on.

I also distinctly remember a knock on my door — it was my neighbour, whose cordless phone had gone dead. She wanted to call her boyfriend so I handed her my Treo; she promptly handed it back and said:

“I don’t know how to use this…”

I was fortunate back then that my mobile service stayed up while everything else went down. That I’ve currently no less than four separate sources for Internet in my house speaks to my low tolerance for outages; a short service interruption on WIND Mobile this past summer prompted my girlfriend and I to move to another provider.

I guess we’re all somewhat guilty of taking for granted the wonders of modern mobile service, and it’s only when that service is taken away that we are reminded of how important it is…