As you may know, Time Warner suffered a nationwide internet outage on August 27th.
It lasted just three hours, but with a system as big and centralized as Time Warner’s, what would have been an inconvenience for a smaller provider became a debacle big enough to warrant a story in Time.
The cause of the outage was surprisingly small. In the words of the company’s own press release: “During an overnight network maintenance activity in which we were managing IP addresses, an erroneous configuration was propagated throughout our national backbone, resulting in a network outage.” In layman’s terms, that means someone messed up a setting on the central line that local and regional networks connect to in order to carry data.
But that little configuration left eleven and a half million subscribers without internet, shutting down coverage for large swaths of the country, including New York and Los Angeles, where they hold a virtual monopoly.
Our last article focused on the costs a single business is hit with when their internet goes out, so just try to imagine the amount of money that’s lost when an ISP fails on that scale.
This is one of the inherent problems with monopolies and centralization. If one company’s providing everyone’s internet, and that company goes out, their customers are left stranded.
This is especially noteworthy in light of Time Warner’s ongoing attempts to merge with Comcast. If this deal goes through, the resulting creation will be the world’s largest cable provider, controlling almost half of America’s wired broadband services. However, the merger, in the words of Georgetown University professor Betsy Sigman, “could increase the likelihood of a massive super outage.” And if that super-outage happens, customers will have fewer places to turn to get their internet back. Many won’t have any, forcing them to watch helplessly as their online businesses bleed out.
And are Time Warner themselves prepared for a “super-outage?” Just five days after this one, Time Warner agreed to pay a $1.1 million penalty to the Federal Communications Commission for neglecting to file “a substantial number” of other outage reports. These weren’t little ones, either. Federal law states that a company only has to report an outage to the FCC if it lasts more than thirty minutes, and could (among a few other circumstances) either cause massive interruptions to customers’ phones and internet, or interfere with emergency services. Apparently, even with these standards, there were still too many for Time Warner to report them all. The writing was on the wall, but it seems they often chose to ignore it.
That brings me to another problem with mega-corporations. As proved by recent tragedies like the banking crisis and the gulf oil spill, they’re also very difficult to hold accountable. With no competition and no one except the government, which is very susceptible to lobbyist influence, to oversee them, they often suffer no severe consequences for causing problems that affect millions of people.
However, the fact that a mere three hours of outage can cause such crippling effects tells us not just about our internet service providers, but about the internet itself, and how integral it is to the functioning of successful businesses today. New York governor Anthony Cuomo called the situation “a stark reminder that out economy is increasingly dependent on a reliable broadband network.”
And here at vUnity, we agree.