A reliable postal system is an indication of a country’s democracy

I’ve found that you can determine how well a country functions by how well its postal system works. When I lived in Australia, I could count on letters getting back to Canada. When in Mexico, not so much.

image: Maple Ridge News

During the pandemic, especially, a functioning postal service is proving to be vital.

Even before the pandemic, the mail served as a great leveller in communication. Anyone, regardless of whether they have an internet connection or not, can communicate with anyone else. In a country as vast as Canada, that’s especially essential. For the price of a stamp, I can mail a letter to Tuktoyaktuk or across town in Kamloops.

Too often, a postal system is measured in business terms: whether it makes money or not. The value of a postal system is that it’s a public service, like public transit. A reliable mail system is a hallmark of a democratic country.

And the internet seems like an obvious replacement to mail until you realize just how insecure it is. Yes, bank statements can be sent electronically but so can fraudulent messages that dupe people out of money. The internet can’t be trusted for something as fundamental to a democracy as voting.

The postal system in the United States is under attack.  

There are mounting concerns in the U.S. over being able to vote by mail in the upcoming presidential election. President Donald Trump has continued his attacks on the United States Postal Service, stripping it of funding and blocking a nationwide mail-in voting in the next presidential election.

Mailboxes were ripped up in Democratic states just one day after Trump threatened to sabotage the USPS. Residents of Oregon and Montana witnessed mail boxes being removed. The same was happening in New York City.

USPS defended the move, saying that they were removing boxes that didn’t receive much mail and so they cut the cost of picking up mail in remote locations. Their defence is lame considering that the new Postmaster General, a major Trump ally, overhauled the Postal Service’s corporate structure and reassigned 33 top executives.

The Trump administration is not interested in a reliable postal service as a vehicle of democracy. He clearly cares not a whit about the needs of citizens with accessibility issues, disabled veterans, the elderly and those in rural communities who rely on USPS.

Meanwhile in Canada, elections are proceeding without any doubts about Canada Post being able to deliver mail-in ballots. I have requested a mail-in ballot for the upcoming election in B.C., -as have one-third of eligible voters concerned about the pandemic.

The internet doesn’t cut it when it comes to voting. Melanie Hull of Elections BC said:

 “While online voting would help ensure physical distancing, unfortunately there are still significant security concerns with this method of voting. It’s not something we recommend for a provincial election in B.C.”

The mail-in ballots in the upcoming elections in Canada and the U.S. will test our democratic institutions.  

After the pandemic is over, I’m curious to know whether a letter I send from the U.S. will make it home.

Look to the sea for the internet, not the clouds

Our connection to the internet seems so ethereal –it’s as though data materializes out of thin air. This illusion is a result of the final hop of our connection to the internet.

image: palam.ca

I find the illusion compelling, especially when it comes to travel outside of Canada. Before the internet was readily available, I would travel with a short wave radio and string up an antenna to get news over the airwaves from home.

Now my computer substitutes for my short wave radio and the internet substitutes for the airwaves. I listen to thousands of radio stations around the world on my computer with no fading in and out. It’s easy to think of the internet as a medium of the air.

The notion of our data being in the “cloud” furthers that illusion. But, in fact, the cloud couldn’t be more grounded. The servers that provide data storage exist in concrete bunkers around the world. One of them is on Bunker Road in Kamloops. It’s owned by Q9, a Canadian company running data centres across the country.

“There is no cloud,” says Nicole Starosielski, author of The Undersea Network and adds:

“The cloud is in the ocean. It’s on the bottom of the sea floor. It goes through deep sea trenches. It goes through reefs amongst fish. It’s subject to undersea landslides. That’s where the internet is,” she told CBC Radio’s Spark. “The only time that the internet really is in the air is in that last hop when it goes from your router to your computer or from a cell tower to your phone.”

A casual looks a globe affirms that notion: seventy per cent is covered by water. Even then, considering the expense of laying cables, I would have thought that satellites carry most data. It turns out that satellites carry only a small fraction of what undersea cables do.

The fibre-optic cables that carry data though the deepest ocean trenches are fragile: only the size of a garden hose. There are about 300 cable systems that make up the backbone of the internet. And because they go from one country to another though international waters, they’re difficult to protect. If a fishing ship drops anchor on a cable, they wouldn’t even know the havoc they wreak.

The U.S. is protected by redundancy but smaller countries, especially island nations like Tahiti, are connected by just a single cable. So, if it is damaged, the internet for the whole country goes down. Despite the growing importance of the internet, the internet is surprisingly delicate.

However, it’s not fragile for wealthy countries that have multiple undersea connections. Wealth plays into the location of the cables. Cables are laid in places that are economically preferable or where they’ve been laid before.

Politics also plays a role. When Google planned to lay a cable directly between the U.S. and Hong Kong, the U.S. Justice Department vetoed it because of the dispute with China and Huawei.

Our concept of the internet matters. When you consider that the world’s servers emit as much CO2 as the airline industry, it brings the internet down to earth –and to the oceans.

 

Local content on the new aether

Medieval scientists believed that radio waves were carried through a medium they called the aether. Seems sensible. If sound waves require a medium, why not radio waves? It turns out that radio doesn’t need a medium; a vacuum will do nicely.

radio

     radio waves

The internet is the new aether. The “network of networks” depends on wires and optical fibers to carry signals. The internet wouldn’t exist without it (Wifi is radio but it’s just a connection to the internet).

We straddle both worlds –ethereal radio waves surround us while the internet remains wired. If I put up an antenna, I can receive CFJC TV for free. I chose to pay Shaw cable to have the station delivered to my house.

The internet is as disruptive as early radio and TV was and its role is still being defined. Is the internet a broadcaster? If CFJC is a broadcaster and if I can receive the same station over the internet, it would seem like it.

Not so. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments from program producers that cable companies were broadcasters. The court agreed with cable companies that they were not.

It’s not trivial matter. If traditional TV stations are broadcasters and cable companies are, then the cost of production local shows and news has to be paid for by the TV stations –they receive nothing for the signals that cable carries.

It’s a problem in small cities like Kamloops because local news and programming is expensive to produce and ad revenue is not as high as large cities.

In the past, cable and satellite companies have grudgingly paid into temporary funds to support local programming but it’s a constant battle. This has left small markets scrambling to make ends meet.

Local news is vital. It not only informs the community it serves, reflects its values, and is vital in emergencies. Rick Arnish, Chair of the Small Market Independent Television Stations Coalition (SMITS), was a strong advocate of local TV before retiring. He also supported free over-the-air TV for people who can’t afford cable. He made that clear in his letter to the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission in 2015:

“Over 95% of the participants who posted comments on the topic of over-the-air television in the online consultation held during Phase 3 referred to the importance and value of the ability to receive television programs inexpensively over the air and opposed proposals to shut down transmitters. Canadians value local news, with a CRTC commissioned poll putting the number who consider it ‘important’ at 81%.”

Arnish also made clear that cable companies should share the cost of local TV if small stations are to survive.

“Moreover, all things being equal, with the phase out of LPIF [Local Programming Improvement Fund] now complete, the SMITS Coalition stations as a group will be in the red this broadcast year, given the loss of the $5.4 million contributed by LPIF last year.”

Before retiring last year, Arnish was Program Director at CFJC TV and General Manager of Broadcast Centre and later President of the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.

The internet transmits the content from traditional sources without paying for its creation. Unlike the old aether which radiated local programming, the new aether sucks the life from local TV.