Could there be a nationwide internet outage?

No e-mail. No Wi-Fi. No Facebook. Nothing. Imagine for a moment being plunged back into the 20th century, without instant access to information, without the ability to communicate across space and time. Imagine, if you will, a nationwide internet outage. I don’t just mean one area or one provider, I mean everyone. It would probably affect land lines and a lot of TV distribution as well, since a lot of that traffic goes over the internet too. I’m talking about, you want to communicate with someone, you have to go see them. Horrifying, right?

The good news is it’s almost impossible. The internet is designed to be “massively redundant.” Remember, before Netflix and cat pictures ever came into play, one of the original purposes of the internet was to be a nationwide computer network that could survive a nuclear attack. It’s designed so that if one line is cut, traffic goes another way. Even if some of the data centers that control all traffic from place to place were to be destroyed, the internet itself would still function until so much of it were taken out that it was simply impossible. Trust me, by the time that happened there would be a lot of other problems, like complete destruction of major cities. Snapchat would be the last thing on your mind.

What’s more likely, what what we actually see on occasion, are provider outages. Several large companies control large chunks of the wires that run the internet, and you’ve heard their names: AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Verizon and others… chances are you pay one of them something every month. These companies have control centers throughout the country that let their customers communicate with customers from other countries. Even though there are definitely safeguards, occasionally there are outages for short periods of time. When this happens, it’s not likely that every customer is completely cut off, it’s just that there’s enough of a problem that some customers and some kinds of traffic are cut off. Complete failures are extremely rare because it would take the failure of dozens of components failing at the same time.

On the other hand, partial failures happen all the time. That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? The good news is that the backup systems are so good that you just don’t notice. Maybe speeds are a little slow one day and then things get better again. That could be due to a system failure that isn’t allowing all the traffic in. It could be due to something stupid — several years ago it was revealed that ALL of the Netflix traffic in Verizon’s Southern California network was passing through one wire into one switch. So of course there was congestion.

The internet is, without a doubt, the greatest invention of our lifetimes, and of course it seems terrifying to think about life without it even though many of us remember the days before it became part of our lives. The good news is that while there may be a lot to worry about in this world, a complete internet failure probably shouldn’t be your top concern.