When Broadband Doesn’t Work

I recently lost my company email service. We have been using Rackspace to host our email for a decade, and we loved the customer service. The company was immediately responsive to our questions, and the company was one of our most satisfactory tech vendors.

But then our email went dead, and we got the worst imaginable response. Rackspace posted about every twelve hours for days letting its millions of users know that it was investigating the issue, but there were no explanations or communications beyond the periodic uninformative web postings.

My blog today is not to complain about Rackspace, although I would rate their responsiveness to the outage as a one out of ten. Losing email is no fun, but we muddled by. I can imagine how devastating this incident was for retail businesses that lost email during the heart of the Christmas shopping season.

Losing email reminded me of how reliant businesses are on technology and on the web platforms that underlie our businesses. One part of my consulting practice is conducting surveys and interviews of businesses across the country for communities that are trying to understand the broadband environment. The number one issue I hear from businesses is how devastating it is to lose a broadband connection. A lot of businesses basically go dead when losing broadband.

I don’t think the average person realizes how reliant businesses are on broadband. People are not surprised when broadband shuts down consultants, engineers, or architects who rely on broadband to exchange data and files on projects. But the loss of broadband today can shut down businesses that the public doesn’t think of as broadband intensive.

An example I ran into recently was a sports bar. The business had a multiple-day broadband outage that the ISP blamed on a cable cut. The business relied on broadband for a huge number of functions. The bar lost its automated reservation system. The bar made a lot of money from arcade games that shut down because they were controlled in the cloud. The bar could no longer take credit card payments. It lost its automated accounting system that logged every transaction into the books. The online payroll system was gone, and there was no way to easily track hours, or tips, or pay employees. It became difficult to order supplies since the ordering systems for food and drink had largely been automated. The business lost access to the online banking it used every day. And customers lost the free WiFi.

One of the goals that most communities have is to make sure that the business community has good broadband. That used to mean making sure that every business could buy broadband from at least one fast ISP. But I’ve talked to businesses of all sizes that would gladly buy broadband from two ISPs to protect against losing connectivity. A decade ago, only the largest businesses were concerned about redundancy – today, a large percentage of businesses want a backup broadband connection using a different physical path. Businesses have heartily adopted technology but, by doing so, are vulnerable in ways they never were before. A decade ago, this bar would not have had all of these functions online.

My email outage highlights the other kind of outage that worries businesses. Every one of the functions utilized by the bar is provided by a different online vendor. Every online system a business uses is only as good as the ability of the underlying tech vendor to keep the systems running.

There are too many ways for a business to lose functionality. We’ve seen widespread broadband outages that cascade across the country and temporarily knock the biggest tech companies offline. Every system that this bar uses is susceptible to the underlying vendor having a system crash, being hacked, or getting hit with malware. Technology is great, and it has made businesses far more efficient – until it stops working.

I’ll probably never know why I lost my email. But this reminded me that I can’t fully take any online technology for granted – everything is going to fail periodically, whether due to losing broadband or due to the underlying tech company having an issue. It’s not a comfortable feeling knowing that things can go bad instantly when you least expect it.

2 thoughts on “When Broadband Doesn’t Work

  1. Dear Doug:
    I guess we have to be of a certain age to remember when business was transacted without the use of a computer. And I still find cashiers that too often over trust their cash register/computers to “do the math” and not even check to see if the answer is right.
    A few times a year, I find a total balance that I know is not correct. Cashiers eventually find their errors, but I find it astounding that most folks just blindly waddle through life, trusting whatever comes up on the screen.

  2. Looks like they had a ransomware issue (and lots of class action suit action against them to follow… you weren’t alone in being unhappy).


    Rackspace is another firm that was bought by PE — I don’t know if this is the Rackspace story but it’s pretty common for the PE people to instill “fiscal discipline” which often means cutting down on operations, customer service, security, etc. (Very similar to some of the cost cutting happening at Twitter.)

    Personally, if my ISP got taken over by PE I’d run the other way as fast as I could.

    Rackspace was, originally, a sweet business, back in the good old days, specializing in awesome customer service. I got to know them a little at one point and visit their office which was an awesome use of an abandoned shopping mall — so fun.

    Redundancy is like insurance (or security) — it seems unnecessary until you need it. It would seem like a great service to offer a redundant ISP connection package, you just couldn’t charge double for it.

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