Is the Internet fit for life/business critical systems?

The failure of half the bandwidth to the Middle East and India reminds us just how far the theoretical resilience of the Internet is undermined by the vulnerability of the physical communications networks over which it runs.

“Web disturbances set to continue” is the BBC news headline. Last year we had a similar, but much less publicised incident when a supposed denial of service attack turned out to be the failure of a cable carrying 20% of the Internet bandwidth between the UK and the USA. The time it took to diagnose the cause gave little confidence in the disintegrated support and services structures supposedly mandated by Ofcom in order to foster “competiiton”.

Within the UK, over 80% of traffic passes through barely half a dozen choke points, linked by common wayleaves – several capable of being severed by a single JCB operator, like the one who, a few years ago, cut the cables of fifteen different service operators between London and Cambridge, when working on repairs to the foundations of the M11.

Meanwhile most of us connect to the Internet via a single point of failure, the local BT exchange, through which the unbundled land-line operators trunk their traffic, as do many/most of the wireless operators.

On March 6th EURIM, PITCOM and the All Party Comms Group will come together with Nominet for the first UK Internet Governance Forum and I have been mapping the issues and players that need to be addressed as part of the EURIM contribution to this exercise.

Data loss and E-Crime have been hogging the headlines of late but far greater damage is caused by the sporadic “removal” of large tranches of bandwidth because of failure to address the issues of infrastructure vulnerablity.

This problem has become very much serious over the past couple of years. This is partly because of the sharp growth in volumes of traffic from teenagers exchanging music and video (legally or otherwise). It is partly because of the very sharp rise in the volume of spam.

However, these could have been handled, at least within the UK, but for the imposition of business rates on fibre networks according to investment cost, other than those of BT which are treated according to revenue. This resulted in at least six new national networks and much/most of the available standby capacity, being switched off befroe they went live.

The revenues raised in consequence are piddling compared to the damage done to infrastructure investment – especially because of the punitive treatment of network facilities which exist only to provide hot standby.

The time has come to stop “admiring” the weaknesses of our critical national infrastructure, including our reliance on vulnerable overeas communications links, and start doing something to stimulate the investment necessary to overcome the weaknesses and bypass the bottlenecks.

Until then my favourite ICT Industry Christmas Cracker joke is far too near the knuckle:

How would hospital admissions register an out-patient whose home life-support system depends on an always on Internet connection?

“Dead on arrival”

How many call centres and help desks will now be dead or crippled until the storms in the Mediterranean die down and the cables can be repaired..