Small towns and rural areas across the U.S. are often described as "one stoplight" locales. But many are also one-Internet-line communities, which raises the risk that large regions may go offline if a network route is damaged. That's exactly what happened in Arizona last month when vandals cut a buried fiber-optic cable owned by the Internet service provider CenturyLink.
The perpetrators, believed to have been looking for copper wire that is valuable in the scrap metal market, apparently sliced through the cable using power tools. The damage left a large number of people without Internet access, and also disrupted cellphone, 911, ATM and credit-card processing services in areas around Phoenix, Flagstaff, Prescott and Sedona.
That act of vandalism "exposed a glaring vulnerability in the nation's Internet infrastructure: no backup systems in many places," the Associated Press reported on Friday. "Because Internet service is largely unregulated by the federal government and the states, decisions about network reliability are left to the service providers. Industry analysts say these companies generally do not build alternative routes, or redundancies, unless they believe it is worthwhile financially."
'Major Implications for Telehealth'
Disruptions to Internet service can and do happen for many reasons, ranging from hacker attacks to solar storms. With online access vital for so many services today, such interruptions can be far from merely inconvenient.
Last month's vandalism in Arizona, for example, raised "major implications for telehealth in northern Arizona," according to the Arizona Telecommunications & Information Council. That's a concern for many rural and tribal communities for whom phone and Internet services can be the primary means of accessing health care.
When Internet service is lost for long periods of time -- as occurred in 2013 when an underwater cable snapped off the coast of Washington state -- local workers and businesses can also suffer. In 2010, a hardware failure that led to an 11-day system outage for the air carrier Virgin Blue is believed to have cost the company as much as $20 million in lost revenues.
Fear of 'Economic Ripple Effects'
Businesses and other organizations have worried for years about the potential threats created by their growing dependence on the Internet. "Economic ripple effects of a major Internet disruption could lead to a drop in productivity, lower profits, stock market declines, a decline in consumer confidence, reduced spending and a potential liquidity crisis," warned a 2007 report from the Business Roundtable.
A 2006 analysis of potential risks to different industries by researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Virginia estimated that losses from a 10-day Internet outage in the oil and gas sector could exceed $400 million. Today, those numbers would undoubtedly be much higher.
With 55 million people across the U.S. still lacking access to broadband connectivity, agencies like the Federal Communication Commission have been more focused on providing universal access to Internet service than on ensuring that systems have built-in redundancies. For now, the decision to lay additional fiber to ensure there are backup systems remains with the ISPs that own those lines.
Several technology giants, however, are looking at other ways to deliver universal and reliable Internet service. Google, for example, is testing high-altitude balloons to provide connectivity, while Facebook is exploring the use of drones for the same purpose. And late last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said his firm, SpaceX, was "in the early stages of developing advanced micro-satellites operating in large formations" to provide low-cost Internet service around the world.
We reached out to Charles Henderson, Vice President of Managed Security Testing for the cybersecurity firm Trustwave, to get his thoughts on the issue. Henderson told us that in today's Internet of Things world, people have become reliant on an always-on connection.
"Essential devices such as door locks, security alarms, garage door openers and even HVAC in the home, are now Internet-connected. Furthermore, corporate America has become reliant on the Internet and many small companies do not have redundant Internet connections," he said. "A major connectivity outage for a large area could be a serious disruptive event. It is for this reason that redundancy is a key feature of modern infrastructure. Alternate routes and fail-over lines are critical in today’s world.”