What I learned from an evening spent in the digital dark

Monday afternoon I was working in my home office when my Internet went down. Sadly that's not all that uncommon, but I needed to attend an online meeting. Since my office phone service is through Vonage, no Internet meant no phone either. Of course I have a cellphone as backup so I grabbed that and...no cell service.

I had no Internet and neither of my phones was working. I have to admit it felt a little bit surreal. There I was, alone in my home office and totally cut off, digitally at least, from the rest of the world. My first thought was that something major (and majorly bad) had happened, but maybe that's because I'd watched this week's Fear the Walking Dead at lunch.

To make a long story short, here in the Raleigh, NC area both Time Warner Cable and Verizon Wireless went down at the same time on Monday a little before 3 PM ET. At our house at least, both services were down until around 10 PM ET. We could send texts and had a data signal on our phones intermittently but call attempts resulted in either an "All Circuits Busy" message or a simple "Call Failed."

According to a local news station the problem was caused by a third party contractor cutting a fiber optic cable that serviced both Time Warner Cable and a Verizon cell tower. It seems strange to me that losing one cell tower would cause a six hour outage but it's the best explanation I've heard so far.

In the end it just resulted in a quiet evening for us, but local authorities were concerned because a good number of people were without the ability to dial 911. One local police station set up an emergency email address and monitored it while services were down (though for us at least sending email was not at all reliable during the outage). I also learned that, if you have to, you can text to 911

Reflecting on an imposed night off the grid I was struck by two things. The more frivolous #firstworldproblem issue is that wow, do we ever use the web a lot, mostly for really simple things. Here're a few things that I failed to do, thanks to no Internet: check the weather, set a timer (via the Amazon Echo in the kitchen), read a comic I'd downloaded to my iPad (the app wanted a net connection to authorize me), play a video game (I had to reconfigure my Xbox One to be in "offline mode" which was easy enough once I figured it out, but my first instinct was to go online to learn how to do that...), and try to remember where we'd seen an actor before. Over and over one of us would pick up a device to look something up then realize what we were doing and set it back down sadly. We're definitely an Internet couple.

There was no Internet when I was a kid. No cell phones. No 911 system. If you wanted to look something up you headed to the library. But sometime between then and now I have become completely dependent on technology and I'm feeling a bit uneasy about that. When I want to know something, I want to know it now and having to wait is really frustrating. At the least, it might be time to buy a radio so I can get some news when the 'net is down.

But the more important issue that this event highlighted is how fragile our infrastructure really is. Assuming the local news station has it right, accidentally cutting one cable sent a significant portion of the Raleigh, NC area into the digital dark. I thought the whole idea of the Internet was that it was decentralized so that there was no single point of failure, but apparently that isn't always the case. If a single accident could cause this much damage, imagine how much chaos a malicious group could do if they cut a dozen cables at the same time.

Granted I'm talking about phone and Internet service and not power and water, but in terms of communications at least, I now feel like we're living a lot closer to total chaos than I ever imagined.

This story, "What I learned from an evening spent in the digital dark" was originally published by ITworld.

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