Column I heard an electric discharge, a bit like a Jacob's ladder, immediately before a deafening crack of thunder. I'd never been so close to a lightning strike! All of the lights in the house went bright, then dimmed, then went back to normal. "Uh-oh," I thought, "I'm in trouble now." Everything in the house had been hit by a nasty surge and the oft-spoken aphorism that broadband services are now a utility to rank with water and electricity was suddenly very, very, real to me.
But it was electricity I worried about first. I use top of the line surge protectors so my most sensitive devices – computers and monitors, of which I have many – all seemed fine. But I'd overlooked two other connections that come into nearly every home: the antenna and the phone line.
My television seemed to have taken a direct hit. It still worked – mostly – but appeared unable to receive any digital broadcasts. That circuit, lying on the other side of the antenna lead, likely took a big hit from the lightning strike. But the rest of the television seemed fine – at first. After a few days, and several spontaneous reboots, I began to intuit that devices don't always immediately fail when hit by lightning. Sometimes they gradually shed their functions and utility.
My phone line runs directly into a modem that connects my home to the fiber-to-the-curb equipment that in turn connects to more wires and stuff in the street. That modem needed a hard restart, but otherwise appeared fine – until two days later, when some repair work performed on the equipment out under the footpath (possibly hit by the surge as well) left me disconnected from the network. My modem refused to connect, leaving me without a broadband connection.
At the beginning of the last decade, such a minor tragedy would have been rated as #firstworldproblems – suck it up, and get on with it. But the world has changed a lot in the last few years. Nearly every major electronic appliance wants to be connected – for control, for status, for surveillance. All of this works more or less flawlessly – when there's a network connection. Take away connectivity and the whole thing begins to flail about like the proverbial headless chicken.
My smart lights, gone dumb, stay dimmed. My television – what's left of it – can't receive any of the streaming services. And my computers? They're cast back into a pre-web world of productivity apps. Anyone for eight hours of Microsoft Word? Modern apps and the devices they run on have been built around an assumption of continuous, high-quality, high-bandwidth connectivity. Deprive them of that oxygen and they all begin to choke – an experience worse even than trying to get serious work done connected to aircraft Wi-Fi.
All of that would have been bearable if only it had been brief. Instead, I got to watch the unedifying spectacle of my retail internet service provider and Australia's monopoly wholesale broadband provider – pointing fingers at one another, each claiming the fault lay on the other side of whatever line of demarcation determines responsibility for the fix. Whole days passed as I waited – disconnected and increasingly dyspeptic – for someone to take ownership of what should have been a straightforward problem to solve.
A problem that I now began to realize we do not yet take seriously enough.
Certainly not as seriously as we take outages to electricity or running water, incidents that demand fixes within hours. Connectivity stealthily entered this category of necessities over the last decade, but it appears we're going to need to rethink the entire apparatus of both network resilience and service uptime to accommodate this new reality.
While I wait for the arguing to end and my service to be restored, I've had time to think about what such a resilient, high-uptime network might look like: very open, very competitive, very easy to repair with common devices and easy-to-learn techniques. A broadband network designed to favor uptime and repairability means that pretty much everyone should be able to fix almost anything that goes wrong – or can feel confident they can ask a more knowledgeable neighbor to have a look in.
Yes, we need to be careful about security, spoofing, and the like. But security-by-obscurity is an even worse design goal for a physical network than it is for an application. Openness means more help can be delivered to fix what's wrong, whenever it goes wrong. Paradoxically, monopolies can foster openness – they have nothing to lose. We urgently need to rethink our networks around their new significance – but before that, can we please get me reconnected? ®
Postscript: On day six of disconnection, a technician visited and reported that another repair person had replaced some equipment under the footpath in front of my home and then neglected to re-connect my line.