I returned yesterday evening from three days and two nights of almost no innertubes or cell phone.
I was staying in a hotel that I’ve used many times. The ethernet connection in the room did not work. We tried two computers and two cables and nada. Because of the nature of the family business I was there to conduct, I decided it wasn’t worth the effort to change rooms. (There was wireless in the lobby.)
In addition, my cell carrier’s local tower was apparently having issues. There was unbroken coverage a few miles away in either direction. (On my way back, I called my carrier to report the problem, since I suspect they have few customers in the local area, as they are new there; they were shocked when I refused to discuss any kind of credit or refund).
And, you know what? the world didn’t end.
It was still there when I returned.
How fragile? Take an event like the unexpected death of Michael Jackson on June 25. As tens of millions of people rushed online for the details, important interchanges on the Web sagged, faltered and, in some cases, crashed. “Google News, TMZ, Twitter and Wikipedia all experienced temporary outages or interruptions” as users raced from one site to another collecting and forwarding information, said Susan Gurley, executive director of the travel executives’ organization.
The AOL instant messenger service went down for 40 minutes, and AOL called the collapse “a seminal moment in Internet history.”
That’s what a news bulletin about a dead singer can do. Imagine, then, the online consequences to far-flung travelers of a real crisis like a sudden acceleration in the swine flu pandemic. Many companies that send employees on the road have created detailed contingency plans for dealing with such a crisis, “and nearly all of them rely on the Internet for implementation,” Ms. Gurley said.
I’m sorry if I am unable to see a either an AOL IM crash or a bunch of businesspersons stranded in hotels as some kind of crisis. A snowstorm in Denver in March will strand and inconvenience and, possibly, kill far more persons than not being able to access the internet for an hour or two will do. Heck, I was stranded on a business trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Stuff happens and you wait it out.
The implications for government resources are somewhat more serious, but I am confident that the federal government has its own secure networks that function in their own cyber-channels apart from the internet the public uses, even though they might share some of the same physical pathways. This story, discussing how malware was let loose on military networks via careless use of USB thumb drives, indicates as much. Physical, as opposed to internet, access to the military networks was required to release the malware.
I am therefore certain that, for example, the Department of Defense network is not affected when home users overwhelm Twitter (Twitter has a history of being overwhelmed, anyway). The failure of crucial cables would, as regards the government, be a greater danger than a bunch of Michael Jackson fans all twitting at the same time.
It is likely that some states and localties, especially in these budget-strapped times, are less likely to have similar protections. They don’t have the resources or, in many cases, the expertise, to establish sufficient redundancy.
I am not saying that issues of capacity, redundancy, and back-up systems should be ignored.
I am saying, rather, that getting hysterical when AOL IM is down is misdirected panic.
If we’re going to panic, we should at least panic in the right direction.