Your Internet Could Disappear, Just Like That

The internet is not prepared for an uncertain, climate change future

The Fragile Internet

 Lifewire / Grace Heejung Kim

We take the internet for granted. It’s at our fingertips on our phones and only as far away as our voices can carry when we talk to our Echoes. The internet weaves through most of our home entertainment and many of our utilities. It’s a thread, however, made not of tungsten steel, but of more fragile gossamer fibers that aren’t always as resilient as you think.

Some weeks ago, huge swaths of the Internet went belly-up when CloudFlare, a major back-end services provider, uploaded a bad piece of code. Suddenly, websites large and small were inaccessible and some tools web workers use on a daily basis ceased to function.

An hour later it was over, and we forgot about it just as quickly as it started.

Timelapse of storm clouds
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

This is Our Outage

However, when the outage comes home, and I mean literally home, it strikes us in a different way, reminding us that what we take for granted could be gone in the blink of a digital eye.

After days of 95-degree-plus temps over the last week or so, I was relieved to see a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon. Of course, I got more than I bargained for as clouds started spinning lazy circles over my home and the sky turned a nice pale shade of green. We avoided a tornado, but the wind, rain, and lightning were intense. Naturally, the family hunkered down indoors and spilt off into two rooms to watch Netflix. 

An hour or so later, the sky flashed again and, even though my power remained intact, the show froze on both TV sets. We gathered in the living room to commiserate and started checking our phones for news of the storm and possible power outages. That’s when we noticed that our W-Fi was down as well. Even our LTE connections (never great to start, thanks so much, Verizon), had collapsed to useless, below-3G levels. None of us could get online. We later learned that a huge chunk of Altice One customers were similarly affected.

Not So Smart

I realized that now all our smart devices, including our Nest Cams, smart lights, smart speakers, and internet-connected sprinklers were untethered, floating helplessly toward a disconnected abyss. On the Amazon Echo Fire TV Cube, a band of orange lights raced back and forth as if it alone could find our lost internet.
At a loss, I tried switching to regular TV, but the fiber optic system had also collapsed.
We had nothing.

  •  No web
  • No email
  • No streaming!

 My wife picked up her phone one more time and noted, “It’s one hundred percent charged and one hundred percent useless.”
Cut off from a world of information, we eventually retreated to our rooms to play offline games and read on our Kindles.

Number of people going online daily
 Pew Research

We Can't Lose This

Losing the connectivity like this reminded me of just how much we rely on our devices and the internet. Obviously, we’re not alone. A 2018 Pew Research Study found 39 percent of those 18-29 (my children’s age) go online almost constantly. 30-49-year-olds aren’t much better, with 36 percent admitting they’re online all the time. In my age bracket (over 50) it drops down to 17 percent.

These numbers sound only about half right to me. I mean, take a good look around. People are online at work, during the commute, at home, in bed; some might even try to do it while they sleep.

It seems to me that despite all this, we take a rather cavalier attitude toward the health and safety of our internet infrastructure.

It’s not that people aren’t paying attention. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and other Federal agencies watch over cyber security, but mostly from a perspective of preventing an attack. Still, there are other factors threatening everyone’s access to our digital lifeblood.

A lightning strike
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The Watchers

Our penchant for guzzling electricity, for instance, is probably putting the internet at risk, and the storm I experienced could be seen as either an anomaly or more alarming trend.

According to GlobalChange.gov, we experience climate change primarily through increasingly extreme weather events. These include more heat waves, droughts, and, yes, heavy downpours. “Since 1991, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events has been significantly above average,” notes the report.

Sometimes major storm events, like Hurricane Sandy, are national news events, especially when they take out the power for thousands of people. But I think it’s likely that there will be far more smaller events in the future, missed by all but those directly affected by them.

That night, we didn’t lose power, but lost something far more precious: our connection to the outside world. I just wonder how prepared we (and our local internet infrastructure) are for an unpredictable future.