Computers went offline, cell phones and landlines didn’t work, credit card readers and ATMs couldn’t accept payments or dispense cash, and even 911 stopped working, all thanks to a large-scale Internet outage.
It sounds like the plot of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” but it really happened this February in Flagstaff, Arizona. Fortunately, the cause wasn’t a sentient computer network bent on man’s destruction, but just some vandals who accidentally cut through a bundle of Fiber Optic Internet cables, likely in an attempt to steal copper wire for salvage.
While the outage was brief for most residents, and was fixed entirely within 15 hours, it highlighted two very important things: how easy it would be for a deliberate attack to have the same effect, and how dependent our society has become on our Internet connectivity.
With regard to the former, it seems more likely that anyone who did want to disrupt our connectivity would do so via cyber rather than physical attack. That said, we now know that such a large-scale outage isn’t something we could only see in the movies. As for the latter, should we really assume the Internet will always be there?
Have We Become too Dependent on the Internet?
Imagine yourself in the middle of the city when such an attack occurred. Many of us don’t carry cash, so would you have another solution to pay for the gas you need if the credit/debit card machines are down? Do you have a plan in place with your kids in case you couldn’t text them to tell them where you’re picking them up? These are things we need to be thinking about.
How Many Eggs for How Many Baskets?
Networked, integrated systems offer a lot of potential when they work right. But when integrated systems fail, problems get magnified exponentially. For instance, the landline phones that went out did so because they used fiber rather than traditional telephone cable. While fiber obviously has the advantages of speed and bandwidth, customers using separate phone and Internet plans with separate logistics still had at least one way to communicate.
You Should Already Have a Plan
We think about being prepared for power outages, making sure we have flashlights and candles around the house. Many people prepare for whichever kinds of natural disasters are most likely in their areas—earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, etc. But have you ever considered preparing for even a short-term Internet outage?
Solutions to some of the problems mentioned above are simple, and none are restricted to Internet outages—they’re applicable to other potential calamities, too. Everyone should carry at least some cash. Everyone should have a family emergency plan, so everyone knows where to go and where to expect others to be. Even having a few cans of food could be handy in case the Internet goes down on the day you were supposed to buy groceries.
There Are Worse Things
As frustrating as it would be to get caught up in a citywide—or larger—Internet outage, at least such an outage would eventually end. Living with a slow connection, day after day, with no end in sight? Now that’s a real nightmare.
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