Steve EffrosThings are relatively quiet in Washington right now. Both Senate and House members are home raising money for the upcoming election or on some jaunt at taxpayer expense. The president’s off playing golf. It’s actually money well spent from the point of view of a lot of folks, anything to keep them out of DC! But even with all the summer doldrums, there has to be something to keep the righteous indignation flowing, so last week it was a hearing about the FCC not being able to cope with email filings.

The Commission and its chairman made a mistake. No question about it. They, and particularly their IT folks, characterized a collapse of their electronic comment filing system as the result of a “DDOS” attack, an intentional distributed flooding of the system in order to deny service. It wasn’t. As soon as they realized that, they should have said so. But because investigations had already started on why the system had failed, the real reason was kept confidential until the investigations were over. Mistake. That has just led to a vast set of conspiracy theories as to why the Chairman didn’t ‘fess up” a lot sooner, and the assumption by some that the whole episode was intended to block comments from actually being filed that were opposed to what the Commission was proposing.

Now all this has to do with “net neutrality,” so you know it’s going to go off the rails no matter what, and that’s not really what I want to comment on today. Rather, it’s time for all of us to understand, and say quite plainly, that there are NO infrastructures built to handle sudden, massive influxes of calls, data, power, water, or anything else. This isn’t about some nefarious scheme regarding a hot political issue, this is about the reality of infrastructures.

It all reminded me of when I was speaking, many years ago, to the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation up on Capitol Hill. They were exercised about the fact that when the cable system had an outage, their constituents, our customers, complained that they would try to call in to the local system and the lines would always be busy, they couldn’t get through! One Congressman pointed out that the same complaint never seemed to be true of the telephone company. And that’s where the title of my column comes from; my response was “think about that for a minute…” If the telephone service is out, there’s no wonder that folks don’t complain about the company not answering their phone; customers can’t call them in the first place!

In the FCC case, it wasn’t a DDOS attack, it was a popular Sunday night skit on television that urged all like-minded folks to file a “comment” with the FCC about net neutrality (with incorrect characterizations of what was proposed, but forget that for now.) Well, a whole lot of folks read the address on the screen and immediately tried to send a “comment.” The result was the same as a DDOS. Too much input all at once crashed the system. It always will.

The telephone system is only designed to handle calls of less than 25% of telephone customers at one time, hence on Mother’s Day you are likely to get a notice that “all lines are busy” try your call later. And then there’s the plumbing system in most apartment buildings. They always suffer from “the halftime phenomenon” during the Super Bowl. You don’t need a hearing to figure that one out.


Steve Effros was President of CATA for 23 years and is now an advisor and consultant to the cable industry. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of Cablefax.

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