What if the internet stopped working?

• • Cable, data transmission, Telco

The gratitude you receive after a broadband installation or repair is a daily reminder of the importance of the internet. While your customer’s digital needs are well protected in high-quality enclosures, the infrastructure that supports their home network is more vulnerable than they might think. And the consequences of a world without internet are severe.

Cyber attacks

A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack last October infected Internet of Things (IoT) devices with botnets that attacked a Domain Name System (DNS) server causing outages at dozens of sites including Twitter, Spotify and Reddit. It affected thousands of people on the Eastern Seaboard, and it served as a warning of potential danger.

Political decisions

In 2010 Iran shut down the internet for 45 minutes, and Egypt shut it down for five days in 2011 in response to political unrest. Imagine if that happened in Canada or the US.

The sun

Solar flares occasionally cause geomagnetic storms on Earth. A small geomagnetic storm caused a power outage in most of Quebec in 1989. And in 2005 a series of solar events known as the Halloween Storm caused an American navigation system to go offline for about 30 hours.

Damage to cables

Just like any other wiring the fiber optic cables that make up the internet can be accidentally or deliberately severed or damaged. In Egypt, two men were arrested for cutting a sub-sea cable that connected three continents. Internet speeds there were severely reduced while it was being repaired. Humans aren’t the only threat; sharks have been filmed trying to eat sub-sea internet cable.

If any of these types of events shut down the entire internet, the results would be catastrophic.

Communications Breakdown

Without social networks, people are less able to connect with friends and loved ones. Some will turn to the phone line for communication, which will put immense strain on telecommunications infrastructures. Others run the risk of isolation.

Without the internet, it would be hard to get news about what has happened. Radios and broadcast television would still work, but ownership of these devices is now less common. Newspapers and magazines send digital files to printers over the internet, so even print media would be hindered.

Travel would be risky, if not impossible. Online booking systems would not work, which would affect air, sea and land travel. Some aspects of air traffic control systems use the internet, which increases the danger of flying.

Fuel could only be purchased with cash, so the supply of goods would soon stop. For urban centers that rely on food delivered by trucks, this would be a serious problem.

Banking would stop working, as ATMs and branches would be incapable of accessing accounts. Stock markets would crash. And the millions of people who work online would not have jobs.

Why it’s unlikely

Fortunately, the internet is made up of many smaller networks, so it is nearly impossible for a single event to impact the whole internet.

Egypt and Iran were able to shut down the internet only because service providers complied with a government order. There is no scenario in which all world leaders would want to shut down the internet. And if they did, there is no way that all of the world’s service providers would comply.

Solar events have more of an impact on radio waves than anything else. A major event could do a lot of damage, but subsea fiber optic cables would be fine.

And there are not enough sharks – or ill-intentioned people – in the ocean to take out all of the subsea cables at once.

While a complete breakdown is unlikely, localized events will continue to happen. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe they will ensure that we continue working hard to keep the internet running smoothly.