Sandy reveals Web's vulnerabilities
Our digital communications rest uneasily on a platform that wobbled and in some cases broke down altogether in the storm that ravaged New York City and its surroundings.
Although I am ridiculously fortunate to have escaped Hurricane Sandy with only a few downed trees and a week without electricity, the storm left me with the unsettling realization that what passes for Internet infrastructure -- the mishmash of wired, wireless, power and computer technologies that virtual things run on -- is essentially a techno bucket of bolts.
And considering the cost, complexity and uncertainty in doing business on the Web, it is no wonder that information technology giants such as Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and Amazon.com (AMZN) see their profit margins under threat.
The World Wide Web will need a worldwide rebuild before anybody ever makes any real money with the thing.
The nonworking Web
The problem with the Internet is, of course, there is no single point of contact -- or responsibility -- for keeping the Web working. We all use a mix of cellphones, wired Internet and enterprise service providers to access our digital content. Most of the time, the thing hums along, safely out of sight and underneath the Web's digital hood.
But because I run a cloud-based content shop -- and test cloud-based content tools in the process -- my colleagues and I were in the fascinating position of touching essentially every Web provisioning technology as the storm swept through.
We used 3G and 4G cell modems and cellular voice service from Verizon Communications (VZ), Clearwire (CLWR), AT&T (T) and Sprint Nextel (S) to file stories and check facts. We made calls from various broadband phones, such as those from Vonage (VG). We accessed the Web via various routes, including Verizon's fibers and Time Warner's (TWC) traditional cable.
And as Sandy ravaged our network, we saw firsthand how these platforms wobbled from nonfunctioning to barely functioning to high-functioning -- and back again -- seemingly at random.
Here is just one example of the stubborn problems Sandy revealed: While 100-foot oak trees crushed power lines and homes, somehow Verizon fiber networking lines stayed connected to my home office. The catch is that fiber plants such as those Verizon sells need external power to function. Verizon tries to do the right thing; it installs its FiOS product with a battery backup for emergencies. But in battery mode, it turned out phone service worked but data would not.
At times, this required -- no kidding -- a fully running backup generator, which I'm lucky to own. But, of course, gas is so dear these days it's simply nuts to run a 5,400-watt generator to power a 20-watt data line.
Sometimes that left the grim choice of accessing the Web via a cell modem or phone, which varied heavily by carrier and conditions. Overall, Verizon cell service was reasonable for making calls, but not for data access. AT&T provided reasonable data, but email was not reliable. Sprint offered solid data service, but the Web and phone calls struggled.
The only truly reliable digital communication solution? Low-tech text messaging.
The no-margin Internet
We were lucky. Emails got sent. Stories got filed. And we are still in business. But it took far too much time, and I already feel the margin pinch this month. And with that pain, my contempt for managers at Web giants such as Google, Facebook or Amazon has softened.
I now understand exactly why margins do nothing but go south at these firms. The Internet is such challenging a place to function that of course it's tough to make money. Something is always falling apart. Strictly speaking, Jeff Bezos deserves a prize for wringing the few cents out of the dollar he does at Amazon.
Honestly, the Web makes Amtrak look reliable.
And I'm not alone on picking up on the Web's "just getting by" vibe. Manchester, N.H.-based Renesys, a global Web analytics firm, said that while in Manhattan just 10% of the network was taken offline, the effect on the Internet was profound.
"Silencing 10% of the networks in the New York area is like taking out an entire country the size of Austria, in terms of impact on the global routing table," the company wrote on its blog. "The 90% that survive are in data centers, running on generator power supplied by engineers who do not sleep much."
Sandy showed me that the Internet is just like those lovely homes on the Jersey Shore: great to hang out in, but far more expensive to run than you'd imagine.
And investors betting on these properties should understand that when the wind whips up, they will surely do one thing: sink down in the sand.
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