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Electricity Blackouts & the Internet « Previous | |Next »
October 3, 2003

Despite its apocalyptic tone this article usefully connects the recent electricity blackouts in the US and Italy to the Internet. The link is courtesy of Relevant History

The article highlights how dependent we have become on electricty and the national transmission grid in the digital age.

".... it lays bare the Achilles Heel of our digital era as our "information society" is wholly dependent on the electricity grid. Without electric power, public transport can't run, businesses can't operate, and people can't communicate. Whereas in the pre-digital days people were still able to go about their business during a blackout, albeit not very easily, it's near impossible nowadays as simple over-the-counter transactions are all handled by "smart" machines and computers. And as everyone gets use to living in a "cashless" society, when the ATMs don't work and your wallet is empty then you are really cashless."

And so things just grind to a halt.

The article then draws attention to the lack of investment in the national electricity grids:

"Our increased use of energy in conjunction with moves by governments to "privatise" or "liberalise" everything that once had belonged to a community or society as a whole has led to a dilapidation of public infrastructures. In terms of the the energy sector, governments have given over a key element public infrastructure over to giant corporations which, in turn, have failed to invest in alternative energy sources and to upgrade the systems."

So our society ends up depending a weak and dilapidated energy infrastructure that is a heavy polluter in Australia. Aspang over at Relevant History says that big blackouts are built into the very design of a national grid. The argument is is that when demand for power exceeds a network's total capacity, the only way the network can cope is by 'load shedding'. As power demand shifts onto generators that are still working, this can overload other transmission lines, causing a sudden avalanche of load shedding as many lines fail.

It's a good argument for centralised renewable energy, since the effort to build a national foolproof electricity grid may well be a fool's errand.

Is a similar process is happening to the communications infrastructure? I raise it for consideration. The article says that that the Internet once belonged to the public commons and is being privatised by business. The interest of big business is to secure "cyberspace" as a new place to shop and advertise, and this will be pursued at the expense of network stability and interoperability. The consequences is that:

"The Internet has crawled to a halt on a number of occasions due to technical failure and simple network overload."

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:16 PM | | Comments (5)


The internet has never crawled to a halt due to technical failure or network overload.

The busiest day is supposed to have been Sept 11 2001 where the whole world logged on to see what was going on in New York and although some news sites came close to crashing, the Internet as a whole managed ok.

I was also thinking of the choking of the flow caused by the increase in Spam

Spam's nothing to do with big business- it's the domain of small dodgy outfits in unlikely places.

Spam is still a dashed annoyance, but no way could you call it 'network overload.'

I've got to sort somethings out here.

I reckon Spam is more than a nuisance.We are drowning in the stuff.
To the main points:

What is it when the Internet grinds to a crawl and you can barely move from one site to another?

That is system overload to me. Or is just the local server?

And Big Business: that is Telstra in Australia.
They are not upgrading the infrastructure upon which the Internet in Australia depends. And they are gouging their customers something dreadful.

You are forced to go on broadband to use the internet properly---and it costs an arm and a leg.

That is a long way from Movable Type as a public commons.
it is the internet as public commons that is being harmed.

Gary - if you are experienceing a gridlock that is far more likely to be a local server issue rather then a general internet isssue.

There's more then enough infrastructure in Australia to cope with the internet demands. However it is a principal of networks that they are only as fast as the slowest link; and that is mostly the exchanges. I would say that the process of upgrading is going quite well. It's all likely to be a complete waste of money, btw, as in five or seven years time the whole way the Net works will change all over again. I would argue that broadband does not cost an arm and a leg for what you get from it.

When I was working in one of the key nodes of Australia's internet, some bozo in a boat smashed the main cable that connects Australia with Asia. This caused some problems and slowed things down for a day or two, but once the routers that control the Internet re-configured the load, the Internet coped ok.

The internet is designed to be nuclear war survivable. I'd not like to actually test that theory out, mind you, but it IS very solid, from a global point of view. It is also constantly evolving and growing. Using the electricity grid to make a point about the Internet is a false analogy.