Impact of Widespread Internet Connectedness

July 21, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

Typically, when I write my monthly column, I conduct some online research to gather facts and figures to include in and build my story around. As I write this column, on July 8th, I am frustrated to have awoken to yet another widespread outage of Rogers’ Internet and Wi-Fi service in southern Ontario (the second in the last three weeks). Forced to put all my client work on hold, I had time to write this month’s piece without the usual data from online news sources and instead focus on my personal experience.

Today, one of my team members and I decamped to our nearest libraries, who were on a different and functioning Internet service. I wonder if Rogers would refund me the loss of our combined hourly rate of work output for that day? I know the answer to that…

My local library was packed with other business owners, employees, freelancers and anyone needing to get stuff done that day. I managed a couple of hours of work, though on an unsecured Wi-Fi, and then relocated to a coffee-shop to wind down my workday. Most downtown stores had hand-written signs in their windows alerting customers that their credit and debit machines were down and they could only accept cash. That worked for me, though many individuals do not carry cash, even for small purchases like a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Later that “day without Internet”, the evening news on Cable TV showed just how widespread the damage had been. Not only leisure activities but vital hospital services, transit services and systems, and other truly important services were limited or on hold. Long queues and frustrated people abounded and social media addicted youth were left feeling bored and helpless.

I admit that I have little to no sympathy for anyone simply feeling bored when not tethered to their cell phone or tablet, although on a broader societal scale I find it sad and tragic for today’s youth who lack the social, human skill of interacting face-to-face and have worryingly little ability or patience to “just chat or play”. Nor can I relate to any able-bodied person possibly inconvenienced at having to open and look into their internet-connected refrigerator manually (I mean, seriously!?), or whose Alexa, Google bot or wireless automatic light-switching and door-locking programs did not function for a day.

What I do find very concerning is how many – too many – of our collective society’s essential systems and services rely partially or completely on Internet and wireless access. That degree of “putting all your eggs in one basket” has always been unwise and it is troubling that vital health care and any kind of safety systems are this vulnerable and close to failing on this scale. Yet, here we are, with total dependence on one squabbling family’s monopolizing empire failing us.

What also makes me wonder is, how does this global super-connectedness affect the need for energy and other natural resources? What is the environmental impact of our immensely wide and deep Internet dependance? It turns out, the impact is substantial. Now that my Internet has been restored, a day later, I can finish my column with some online research and actual numbers. A 2020 article by CBC News, stated that some experts say these date centres’ energy needs and impact on the environment rival that of the airline industry. Data centres, which are the hearts and brains of our country-wide and global Internet system, are massive energy hogs. It is not the individual devices or gadgets that need so much power but these global servers that can be larger than the size of a football field.

Cooling all these servers to prevent overheating requires a great deal of energy. Huawei Technologies Sweden expected the world’s data centres would, in 2021, use as much electricity as Canada’s entire energy sector produces, or 651 terawatt-hours (TW) to be precise. And that usage accounts only for Internet needs, nothing else! The biggest culprit is video streaming, with platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video demanding around 60 percent of all Internet traffic. Huawei’s prediction is that computing will consume 11 percent of global energy by 2030, becoming completely unsustainable by 2040. Great. Another big contributor to climate change causes. And here you probably thought that your couple of connected devices in your home would have only a small impact.

On the positive side, providers have started realizing that they need to clean up their act.  Amazon Web Services, the market leader in providing cloud computing to other companies, says it exceeded 50 percent renewable energy usage in 2018 and has made a long-term commitment to use clean power sources, such as wind, exclusively. Others are working on developing technology that may be able to recover the low-level heat that large server facilities emit as a source of renewable energy.

Given this information and in a quest to be able to function during future and maybe more frequent, widespread Internet outages, I am glad I still have Cable TV, a regular plug-in stereo, a phone landline, ‘home security’ called manual door bolts and window locks, and light switches and a refrigerator that I am happy to operate manually. Because, really, how lazy can modern society get?

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