The anti-social network: Avoiding online darkness

By Michael Millar
Business reporter, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionCoiled and ready: Cable like this keeps businesses and consumers alike online

A 75-year-old Georgian woman who says she has never even heard of the internet is facing a possible prison sentence for single-handedly cutting off the web to an entire country.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHayastan Shakarian is accused of hacking through the cable that cut off Armenia's internet

Georgian police arrested Hayastan Shakarian after she allegedly hacked through a fibre optic cable that runs through Georgia to Armenia, while digging for copper.

With one stroke, the pensioner plunged 90% of internet users in Armenia into online darkness for nearly 12 hours.

The episode is a timely reminder that all it takes in our hi-tech world to shut down thousands of companies for a day is a determined old lady with a spade.

Huge reliance

Research carried out in October 2010 by Avanti Communications offered a snapshot of just how fundamental the internet had become to businesses.

The survey of companies worldwide suggested only 1% could function adequately without the internet.

More than a quarter (27%) of those surveyed said they could not function at all if the internet went down, and one in five said a week without being online would be the death of their company.

"In the past, network downtime might have prevented a batch of communication at the end of the day," says Chris Kimm, vice-president network field operations EMEA at Verizon Business.

"Today it could mean no phones, no e-mail, no customer database, no ordering systems, no supply chain visibility and effectively, no capability to conduct business."

Ian Finlay, group chief information officer at Claranet, says: "The key message is if you are going to avoid the worst you have plan for it and for each business the worst will be different."

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image captionFibre optic cables that lie on top of utility pipes are at risk whenever work is done near them

Going underground

Oliver Pettit, from professional services company Deloitte, says key questions to network providers should include whether they can guarantee close to 100% network uptime.

"Moreover, companies should query how resilient the provider's network is to disruptions and what technology it has in place to support its services," he says.

Some solutions on offer are quite straightforward. One network provider, Geo, runs all its cable through the Victorian sewers in London.

This solves one of the major problems that makes telecoms lines in many countries susceptible to being cut - they are laid on top of utility pipes.

Not only does this mean they are mere centimetres under the ground - but whenever repairs are done to utilities, the workmen have to get past the fibre optic wires first, meaning inevitable incidences of cuts.

Clever solutions

Other technologies on offer to providers - which will in turn help their customer stay connected - are mind-boggling.

For example, a company called OptaSense offers to stop potential breaks in service by listening to any threats as they approach.

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image captionNetwork provider Geo runs all its cables through London's Victorian sewer system

Using advanced sonar techniques, the company converts the fibre optic cable carrying the precious internet signal into an acoustic microphone.

It can then tell the network provider exactly what is getting too close for comfort - be it a vehicle, human footsteps, digging or drilling.

Satellite back-up

Avanti Communications is one of a handful of companies that offer 24-hour instantaneous back-up via a dedicated satellite.

It launched its first satellite in November, which covers Europe, and plans to launch one covering the Middle East and India next year.

Chief executive David Williams says satellite technology will play an ever more important role in communications networks.

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image captionDavid Williams of Avanti thinks satellite technology is the future of networks

"Fibre optic cable costs around £150 per metre to dig, so building cable networks is incredibly expensive," he says.

"But one satellite can cover the whole of Europe - so wherever you are, it can get to you."

Financial protection

Insurance companies have been slow to jump on this bandwagon, but products are now becoming available to cover losses caused by network failure.

Alan Thomas, of insurer Hiscox, says each policy is bespoke.

"Insurers love statistics to determine risk, but we just don't have them because it's a young product," he says.

He adds that businesses have been slow to take up these policies but predicts a big increase in interest as soon as an outage leads a high-profile loss for a big company.

Future proofing

The future of networks is causing sleepless nights for IT professionals and policy makers alike.

The appetite for data across the globe is growing at an extraordinary rate and is putting an immense strain on the system.

"A lot of the basis of the internet today was invented 30 years ago," says Tim Fritzley, InTune Networks chief executive.

"In the 90's when people were envisioning the first part of the web even the most optimistic soothsayer never saw anything like social networking."

"They didn't see 10% of what is going on now," he says.

InTune is working with the Irish government on its Exemplar Network.

This aims to vastly increase network capability worldwide by enabling a single strand of fibre to carry not just one signal from one operator, but data from up to 80 telecoms and TV companies at once.

Developers are working furiously to make sure our increasing hunger for data does not mean a collapse of the system.

But whether this will protect users from marauding pensioners looking for copper remains to be seen.

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