Massive Internet Outage Points to Flaws in Policy and Technology

Time Warner Cable’s 11.4-million-customer broadband blackout was one of the largest to affect U.S. customers.

The Internet is critical infrastructure for homes, businesses, and government.

A system crash blacking out broadband service for all 11.4 million of Time Warner Cable’s customers for three hours early Wednesday morning raises questions about the stability of U.S. Internet infrastructure and the potential impact of Time Warner’s proposed mega-merger with Comcast, experts say.

A human error that cascaded throughout Time Warner’s Internet routers appears to have triggered the outage. The company said in a statement that during overnight network maintenance, “an erroneous configuration was propagated throughout our national backbone.”

“It looks like someone put the wrong configuration into one or more devices that propagated throughout their network,” says David Erickson, a cofounder of Forward Networks, a startup that develops advanced networking software. “This type of error is preventable, and detectable with the right software.”

A spokesman for Time Warner Cable, Scott Pryzwansky, would not discuss the details of the incident or why it wasn’t prevented, but he said the company is working to make sure it never happens again.

The lack of disclosure about accidental outages is itself a serious issue, says Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet law at Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. “We ought to have standards for release of data by broadband providers to allow apples-to-apples comparisons and tracking of outages over time so the public, and policymakers, can gauge trends in connectivity,” he says.

Companies are required only to disclose details about forthcoming planned outages, not to share information after accidental ones. And Time Warner Cable is already in trouble for failing to do that. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission said Monday that the company had admitted to not submitting network outage reports on time and would pay a $1.1 million fine.

Wednesday’s outage also highlights a lack of alternatives to U.S. customers if one provider flames out. Some 28 percent of U.S. customers have only one choice of broadband provider and 37 percent have two, according to the FCC.

When just one or two companies own all the information networks in a region, the impact of any outage is increased, says James Cowie, chief scientist at Dyn, a company that provides Internet traffic management and performance assurance. “Right now, last-mile monopolies and duopolies are a significant source of risk in the American Internet, and it’s not yet clear how to build around that,” he says.

Time Warner Cable is the second-largest cable company in the nation and is seeking federal approval for a proposed $45 billion merger with the number one provider, Comcast. This week’s outage is sure to figure in regulators’ analysis of what impact the merger could have on consumers, says Susan Crawford, professor at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University (see “Here’s Why the Proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger Is Bad”).

She says the incident lends weight to arguments that cities and other public agencies should be encouraged to build their own networks and dilute the influence of corporations over the nation’s information infrastructure. “Time Warner’s crash is another argument for why we should be doing everything we can to help municipalities build alterative fiber networks,” she says.

The Time Warner Cable outage is believed to have been one of the largest ever to occur in the United States, though exact data are not available. But it wasn’t the only wide-scale failure in the past week. Last Saturday the small cable provider Charter Communications, which serves far fewer customers, also suffered a nationwide outage.

Harvard’s Zittrain says that the Time Warner and Charter outages also highlight the need for emergency networks that can fill in when communications are disrupted. Such capacity is currently lacking, he says. For example, wireless networks were overloaded after the Boston Marathon bombings (see “Former FCC Chairman: Let’s Build an Emergency Ad Hoc Network in Boston”).

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