Please Stand By…

Blogger downtime screenshot

Blogger just came back up from an hour and 13 minute maintenance window. It looks like the outage was system-wide – an extremely rare occurence for Google. With over 10,000 Google servers spread across the globe, it takes a significant issue to bring the entire system down.

Thankfully, the outage didn’t affect Waileia, but it did keep me from reading the blogs of a large number of colleagues and friends. While I waited for the affected blogs to return, I realized that despite how important our modern telecommunications infrastructure is to us, it goes largely unnoticed until something goes wrong. Nobody expected Blogger to be unavailable today, and I doubt that anybody save the companies directly involved thinks about what damage a telecommunications failure could cause to the economy or even human life.

The telephone is probably the most reliable telecommunications device we have, due to an ironic combination of the simplicity of the landline telephone and the complexity of the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Yet, it took government regulation to grow the network to the point where this is possible. I think that if the early AT&T was not so paranoid about losing its government-sanctioned monopoly, the telephone of today would be seen in a very different light.

Television also requires substantial reliability. In an industry where revenue is measured in seconds of air-time, even a small error can be a severe inconvenience for people, and a substantial financial cost to a TV station.

Even the reliability of the Internet is something of a myth. There are surprisingly few network paths out of Hawai’i. We have much better connectivity than we did, say, five years ago, but there are still conceivable situations where we could lose enough network capacity to reach the rest of the world reliably. In theory, we could route to the U.S. via New Zealand or something equally exotic, but we would saturate available capacity fairly quickly.

With all of the gadgets and gizmos that go into delivering bits from one place to another, it’s a wonder telecommunications works at all ;).

Telegrams Stop

In a move that marked the end of an era, Western Union discontinued all of their telegram and commercial messaging services on Friday, January 27, in an effort to complete their transition to a financial services company. New telecommunications services such as telephones, fax machines, and e-mails contributed to the end of the service.

Modern telegraphy (I suppose “modern” is relative) dates back to 1844, when inventor Samuel Morse sent the message “What hath God wrought” between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. According to Western Union’s history, the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was formed in 1851 to take advantage of Morse’s invention. The company was renamed to Western Union in 1856, and continued to develop the telegraph and other innovations well into the twentieth century.

According to the United Kingdom’s Independent,

The company said the last 10 telegrams sent included birthday wishes, condolences on the death of a loved one and the notification of an emergency. They also included messages from several people trying to be the last telegram sender.

Despite intense competition from the modern telecommunications industry, which benefited from modernized technology and ubiquitous among customers, the telegram survived throughout the 1900’s, mainly for the novelty value and as a way to send relatively inexpensive messages in real-time from the edges of civilization.

While other companies will be happy to send a telegram for you, purists are still disappointed by the loss of what many feel is the canonical telegraphy company.


The Return of Ma Bell

2005 was a big year for the telecommunications industry – a year in which the number of competing players got smaller. Over the past year, SBC purchased AT&T, changing AT&T’s iconic logo in the process, and Verizon acquired MCI to form Verizon Business. Wireless carriers got involved, too: Sprint purchased NEXTEL, and in October 2004, Cingular (a joint endeavor of BellSouth and SBC) completed their purchase of AT&T Wireless.

The irony about all these mergers is that the United States is only a couple of mergers away from seeing the “Ma Bell” of most of the 20th century reappear. The Justice Department settlement of 1984 broke AT&T up into eight Regional Bell Operating Companies, under the expectation that the new competition would lead to increased customer choice and cheaper phone bills. Since then, the number of players has narrowed significantly due to mergers. Today, of the eight “Baby Bells,” only one, BellSouth, has not merged back into a larger company.

Despite the mergers, we’re fortunate to have a little more choice than we originally did. In addition to a variety of smaller, more independent phone companies (including Hawai’i’s own Hawaiian Telcom), cable companies are starting to offer data and voice transmission services. Even Google is getting involved, to an extent – they are purchasing unused “dark fiber” that can connect their data centers together, possibly leading to some sort of ISP service in the future.

I hope that this game of corporation musical-chairs doesn’t end up hurting consumer choice, but I’m not optimistic. I can’t imagine a better way to make money than collecting tolls on the information superhighway.