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Jul 162012
 

This diagram shows a segment of the interconnections that make up the internet.

We rely on the internet for so much these days.  Some aspects of the internet will almost surely cease to be functional in a major societal breakdown that creates a Level 2/3 event – for example, it is very unlikely that Amazon will continue to offer free two-day delivery to its Prime members of anything they might wish to order.

But what about the most basic aspects of the internet – web browsing and email.  And maybe some extra features too, such as Skype or other voice/video/chat type services?  Will they still be available?  Will there still be Google?

Will the internet stay unharmed, will it degrade ‘gracefully’, or will it disappear entirely.

There are three key components to the internet, and it is helpful to quickly consider the impact of a Level 2/3 event on each of these three components, to better understand what will happen to the internet.

These three components are simply the computers that are connected together, the physical wiring between the computers, and the hubs or nodes that piece it all together.

The Theoretical Good News

The good news about the internet is that – in theory – it is a ‘fault tolerant’ method of connecting multiple computers together.  If one switch or one physical route fails, the internet can intelligently and automatically switch traffic over different paths.  It is a bit like being at the north end of the Los Angeles area, and wanting to get down to the south end.  Sure, you could drive I-5, or I-405, but you also have at least half a dozen other major routes, a dozen minor routes, and if you start going over surface streets, thousands of even slower lesser routes to take.  A multi-lane blockage on one freeway merely causes traffic to redirect and switch to alternate paths through the city.

You might not realize this, but when you type a website address into your browser at present, the connection between your computer and the website’s computer probably passes through a dozen different hubs and nodes as it snakes its way through the internet cloud.  If you’re interested, you can see this by opening a DOS/Command window and typing in the command TRACERT and then the name of a website.  You’ll then get a series of lines of information showing the path of your connection through the internet to the website you wish to visit.

So, in theory, the internet could continue to exist even with the loss of a significant number of key data lines and switching hubs/nodes.

Interestingly, even some of the websites that you might visit don’t actually end up being served from a single physical computer somewhere,  Larger websites are remotely distributed and mirrored and cached, so even the loss of some actual physical computers might not have a great deal of significance to most overall functionality.

The Real World Bad News

In theory, the internet is very fault tolerant.  But there are two vulnerabilities shared by most or all of the internet.

The first vulnerability is to EMP effects.  An EMP attack could destroy the electronics in much/most/all of the internet’s computers and switches.

However, and happily, this vulnerability applies only to the specific circumstance of an EMP attack.  Unfortunately, the second vulnerability applies to all types of Level 2/3 scenarios.

The internet consumes an enormous amount of power.  This article says that in 2006, US data centers alone consumed 61 billion kWhr of electricity; which represents one sixth of the entire power consumed by the UK.  Although computers continue to provide more computer power for less energy consumption, we will guess that the internet power usage must have increased in the six years since that time.

Keep in mind also that the power estimated in the preceding paragraph relates only to data centers.  It doesn’t include all the other components of the internet spread all around the country (and world).

The article also says that Google consumes 3.9 million kWhr of electricity, itself, every month.  It isn’t clear if that is also a 2006 figure or a more recent one, but if we simply accept it as it is, we can still see a very clear future reality.

If Google wished to remain operational after a Level 2/3 scenario, it would obviously continue to require this amount of electricity every month.  It seems reasonable to assume that electricity will be in short supply, and that it will go up in cost significantly.

At the same time, the way Google makes money to pay for these costs – through the advertising on its search results – will drop off drastically, because e-commerce will be massively curtailed.

So Google will see its income drop to a very small fraction of normal levels, while its energy costs – assuming the electricity can even be bought to start with – will go up maybe ten-fold, maybe more.

It is true that Google is getting some windpower for some of its server farms, but the law of supply and demand means that electricity, no matter where and how it is generated, will become extremely valuable.  Google’s profitability today in large part is based on being able to process its ‘raw materials’ – ie electricity – into something much more valuable (ie advertising revenue).  When advertising revenue drops, and when electricity goes up in price, Google would become better advised to sell the electricity locally to other electricity consumers.

Even though Google, today, is very profitable, if it were to lose three-quarters of its advertising revenue and at the same time, have its energy costs increase ten-fold, it would run out of money very quickly indeed.  It could not survive as a going concern.

It isn’t just Google that would have to close down.  A similar calculation applies to most other internet businesses.

And what about the infrastructure companies that provide the data services to all the internet connected companies?  Their energy costs will increase too (assuming they too can even manage to get any electricity) and the underlying concept of the (almost) free internet will be destroyed.

We could apply a similar analysis to every other part of the internet, but you probably get the picture already.  The shortage of, and/or massively increased cost of, electricity will destroy the economic model that the internet currently relies upon.

We predict that the internet will quickly degrade in a Level 2/3 situation, because the people who have to pay for the electricity won’t be able to afford it.

Summary

The electricity cost/availability challenge is the ultimate problem that will upset the internet.  It will apply with equal force to your local internet access provider as it will to national internet services like Google.

Even if you and a friend both keep your computers running and connected to your internet modems, the internet connection between the two computers and the ‘behind the scenes’ services necessary for that connection will no longer be maintained.

So, in case the answer isn’t obvious – the internet will quickly fade away as a Level 2/3 event unfolds.  You can not rely upon anything that requires the internet to be operational as part of your response to such events.

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David Spero[suffusion-the-author display='description']

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