Sunday, 8 March 2015

Is internet access a critical service?

Internet access is a mission-critical factor for most modern businesses. Even for individuals, internet access is amongst the top priorities covering both work and leisure reasons and has increasingly found its way to bars, hotels of any price range, libraries and public spaces. At a political level, Information Society (a part of which is internet infrastructure and services) is considered to be a tool for maintaining and strengthening human rights, while there are voices supporting a further upgrade of internet access as a civil/ human right.

'Internet open 7 days til late'
by duncan c under a CC license
Having said that,  the penetration of internet access across the population varies a lot from country to country (and from region to region). Recent usage statistics indicate that internet access ranges between about 26% of the population for Africa to about 88% for North America. For Europe the figure is at about 70%, ranging from 42% for Ukraine to 98% for Luxembourg. While increasing trends exist in nearly all regions world-wide and internet has established presence even in remote areas, access to internet is still far from, say, access to mobile telephony services, where, for instance, in Europe there are 125 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.

Despite the fact that a small-but-significant of the population don't have the means to access the internet, wherever internet access has been established it has had a marked impact on business practices, both in the private and the public sectors. Communication, ordering, data gathering, information dissemination, archiving, networking, etc., are processes that tend to be done exclusively via IT and internet resources in places where such resources are available, of course.

But is internet access being treated as a critical service?

IT infrastructure often is. That, usually, includes measures to protect IT equipment and data, such as having UPS systems in place, applying appropriate data duplication and backup schemes, etc. That, however, does not necessarily include contingency measures to ensure access to the internet backbone.

Part of the challenge is that access to the internet is the result of the collaborative work of many different actors such as internet providers, backbone access regulators, cable or satellite uplink operators with a lot of equipment getting involved in the middle.

So is internet access being treated with the importance a critical service would be?

Current experience suggests that although everyone seems to understand its importance, when trouble comes, things may take their time to resolve. So, no. We are not there yet. And I'm not sure that we can, even if we really wanted to.

The other important question is what would it take to be able to treat internet access as a critical service. How much would it cost us? Would the benefit be worth the cost?

Unfortunately, these are questions I cannot answer. I suspect it involves having access to both trained people - preferably in-house - and the right spare equipment. But I am not aware of any "definite" statistics for the reasons causing internet access outages. The reasons may involve software bugs, failing equipment, congestion, user errors and equipment misconfigurations, even cyberattacks. To make things worse, each reason calls for different mitigation measures, requiring different skills and resources, as well as involving different business actors.

It may be possible, however, to have reasonably-costed contingency plans in case. Clearly it won't be possible to address a Revolution-like scenario. However, depending on the importance of internet access it may be feasible to, for example, have a spare physical connection to the internet (wired or wireless), keep a router and a few switches stand-by, have properly maintained UPSs and a power generator, etc.

Fortunately or not-so-fortunately, as the time in our online world passes, it becomes increasingly difficult for us, when "the internet goes down",  to revert, in a functional and productive way, to systems and practices based on telephone, fax and snail mail (and pen and paper?) alone.

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