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America Offline: Can the U.S. be disconnected from the Net?

Brad Chacos | July 15, 2013
Imagine a world with no tweets, no emails, no notifications pushed to your phone. A world without Candy Crush or indeed, even Facebook; a land without the Internet.

"In the U.S., by contrast, we don't have that sort of monolithic ISP space," says Auerbach. "We have many different networks, and within those networks, there are many types of subnetworks operating. The amount of machinery you would need to shut down is enormous and controlled by lots of people. It'd be really hard to do that in any sort of quick way."

And again, the headaches double when you add wide area and cellular networks to the mix. Safe to say, in the States, The Man isn't going to shut us all down.

Built to last?
So, rule out the tubes, the hackers, and The Man. What might be the most effective way to wreak havoc on the country's infrastructure? NTT's Dorian Kim has an idea.

"Most of the networks--whether you're talking about networks like NTT, Level 3, AT&T, or content distribution people like Netflix or Akamai--all their traffic tends to get exchanged in a very small number of 'carrier hotels' in cities around the country," Kim says.

"The number of those concentration points of activity that you'd need to knock out to do serious damage to the Internet is actually smaller than the number of submarine cables," he continues. "If you ... take out, oh, half a dozen of these around the country, you'd actually do serious damage to the infrastructure. And if you double that and take out the dozen biggest carrier hotels, the impact will be very severe."

And therein lies the Internet's biggest weakness. The great big Web's decentralized nature makes it incredibly resistant to attack, but when you get down to brass tacks, all the mininetworks that make the whole have to hook up somewhere.

"A lot of this comes down to the fact that there are economics behind how networks are built," Kim says. "You have to think about concentration points based on population, and with insulated networks, it makes sense for people who have to interconnect to be as close to each other as possible... Eventually, you wind up in a metro area with one or two gigantic carrier hotels where everybody's congregated."

Built to last
But don't let that fool you: Pulling off an attack of that nature would be very difficult indeed, and its impact would be felt far and wide, notjust in the United States. If--if--a large, well-informed, well-trained, and well-equipped team were able to pull off such a feat, it would be a direct attack against the entire world.

Let's pull it back a bit. Thanks to its central role on the Net and its decentralized network infrastructure, the odds of the U.S. pulling a Syria and disappearing from the face of the Web are effectively nil. In fact, when Renesys--a leading network research firm--examined how difficult it would be for countries all around the world to be disconnected from the Net, the U.S. was ranked "Resistant." Not Average. Not even Low Risk. Resistant. (See the map above.)

So breathe easy, folks. For all intents and purposes, if you're in the States, you've got mail--and nothing is ever going to take away the Internet in a flash. Unless, of course, you forget to pay your bill.


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