What would happen to humanity if the internet service was interrupted?

The unexpected explosion of an underwater volcano in early 2022 cut the fiber optic cables on the island of Tonga and left its population completely cut off.

Restoring the service took several weeks, a time in which the high dependence of humanity on the Internet and the fragility of transoceanic connectivity became evident.

The Consequences of a World Without the Internet

By Gabriel E. Levy B.


On January 15, 2022, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai submarine volcano, located in the South Pacific off the coast of Tonga, erupted and, as a consequence, cut the submarine internet access cables, leaving the island virtually cut off from communication.

Tonga was suddenly without internet, making it difficult to coordinate relief or rescue missions. For several days it was almost impossible to obtain information about what was happening there and, if it had not been for the satellite phones, the people of Tonga would have been completely cut off.

According to a report from the Cloudflare platform, which monitors internet traffic, around 5:30 p.m. (local time) on January 15, 2022, the island’s connectivity was reduced to zero because the submarine cables that provide internet service on the island to connect to the rest of the world were destroyed by a volcanic eruption.

 The Problem Background

Although we often use the concept of the “cloud” to refer to the Internet, we should really call it the “ocean”, since almost all network connectivity depends on around 1.2 million fiber optic cables that crisscross the world’s seas, linking the five continents and thousands of small islands, through a single computer network [1].

Today, companies such as CW Networks, ATT, America Movil, Sprint, News Corporation, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Google, Amazon and Facebook own most of the undersea fiber optic networks, especially those that cross the Atlantic [2].

Ninety-six percent of the data generated on the Internet travels across the dark and icy ocean floor. Only a tiny fraction, less than 3% of internet backbone data traffic, uses satellites or spectrum, especially for last mile services, although the advent of 5G will surely increase this percentage.

A High-Value Military Target

The rest of the continental world, unlike Tonga, has not only one cable that allows access to the Internet, but many cables provided by multiple companies, which ensures that in the event of failure of any of them, the service is still available, even many of the fiber optic cables of the same company have their own redundancy; that is, other cables in parallel located in alternate routes to make up for any damage.

But it is precisely this dual redundancy that is causing a new risk factor, because as fiber optic cables become more widely used and reliable around the world, the greater the dependence on their use. This has led nations to make less and less use of satellite technologies and more and more use of submarine connectivity; a fact that, although in times of peace does not represent a problem, becomes a latent threat in times of war, since cutting off access to the network by any enemy is a very easy task, even by simply using the anchors of any ship.

Russian National Digital Economy Program

Since 2019 Russia started to prepare its country and its economy for a total disconnection from the internet, through the so-called National Digital Economy Program, which obliges internet service providers to have the necessary resources to continue operating “domestically”, in case they are disconnected from the internet, regardless of how this happens [3].

As part of the plan, Russia has been carrying out military exercises to disconnect access to the Internet as a matter of national security, guaranteeing that, if its access to the network is interrupted, it will be able to continue operating digital services internally [4].

This initiative was the first bell for global public opinion, regarding the value of the Internet as a military target, which is why many first world nations, such as China and the United States and others in Europe, have been implementing contingency plans and strategies related to this issue.

What would happen if we were to run out of internet in case of war?

In the event of a war, the possible attacks against the Internet would be both at hardware and software level; that is, they would combine attacks on the connectivity infrastructure: on the one hand, they would focus on cuts to submarine cables and, on the other, cyber-attacks similar to those to which Russian and Chinese hackers have become accustomed, which have left oil pipelines, energy companies, banks, hospitals and many other services out of connection.

In a scenario of an Internet attack, among the most affected would be the health services, which thanks to connectivity provide telemedicine models, which would put the health and lives of millions of people at risk. Similarly, the entire virtual education system would be suspended, resulting in a high social impact.

Likewise, many public utilities could see their systems collapse, basic services such as water, energy and telephony, as well as urban systems such as traffic lights, would be suspended.

For their part, companies and individuals who depend on the Internet, from the first moment of an attack, would suffer enormous losses and would be blocked from doing business or carrying out their corporate purpose. Millions of teleconferences and virtual meetings would be cancelled and thousands more would be cut off from their friends and relatives abroad.

The video game and entertainment industry would record multimillion-dollar losses, as would security companies, which would suspend the service of millions of connected cameras and would be unable to monitor alarms and management systems, which in turn would put the physical security of places and people at risk.

Ordinary citizens would find themselves unable to connect to social media, apps and digital platforms, and this, at least during the first few weeks, could lead to anxiety and withdrawal syndrome, given the dependence that a large part of humanity has on these networks, especially in the most connected countries.

It is curious that inequity, in this scenario, would play in favor of its usual victims.

According to official figures from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), around 56% of the world’s households still do not have Internet access and 4.3 billion people do not use it; 69% of these people live in developing countries.

Therefore, this population would be the most prepared to face an Internet outage, because although they may be indirectly affected by services that consume and use the Internet for their operation, their daily life would be much less affected than that of the more than 3 billion people who do use the network with some frequency.

What would happen each minute in the hypothetical scenario where the Internet stops working?

For every minute that the internet was out of service, 69 million messages would stop being sent by WhastApp and Messenger; around 4 million videos on YouTube would stop being watched, while 500 new videos could not be uploaded on this platform. Netflix subscribers would miss around 70 thousand hours of series and movies. 2 million Twitch views would be lost.

Around 350 thousand apps would stop being downloaded from iTunes and Google Play. 65 thousand photos would not be published on Instagram or 575 thousand tweets on Twitter.

At least 100,000 meetings in Teams, Zoom and Meet would be cancelled. 197 million emails would no longer be sent [5].

Nearly 900 thousand people would stop seeing their Facebook wall, and 40 thousand hours of music on Spotify would not be listened to. Uber would stop transporting more than 5 thousand people; and 3.5 million Google searches would stop occurring [6].

In the economic field, 5 million electronic sales that are currently made every minute would be suspended; VISA alone would stop transacting 1.5 million financial transactions and Mastercard, close to one million.

In a single day, stock exchanges would stop processing around 90 thousand stock market transactions; the Forex market would lose 6.6 trillion dollars; the New York Stock Exchange, 3 trillion and the Tokyo Stock Exchange, 4 trillion. Insurance companies would stop issuing more than one billion insurance policies [7].

Regarding the Internet of Things (IoT) and the discontinuation of artificial intelligence, there are very few studies or estimates that determine what the real impact would be, but clearly, in a world so dependent on technology, the impact would not be minor.

However, while a minute or a day without Internet might seem apocalyptic, it is difficult to say for sure what would happen if the service were to be suspended for days or weeks at a time. We cannot underestimate humanity’s incredible capacity for adaptation and innovation. Although, initially, we could witness an economic depression similar to that of the 1930s, surely, as the days go by, societies would find ways to solve everyday problems, forcing us to remember and experience life as it was before the Internet.

In conclusion, although the Internet is a very secure network designed for worst-case scenarios, our dependence on it has made it a high-value military target in the event of a war, which will most likely include not only cyber-attacks, but also cuts in submarine cables, to which we are increasingly dependent.

[1] Satariano, A. (March 11, 2019). “People think data is in the cloud, but it’s not: it’s in the oceans”. In The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/es/interactive/2019/03/11/espanol/ciencia-y-tecnologia/internet-cables.html

[2] Fernandez, Y. (January 19, 2018). This is what the map of all the submarine cables that shape the Internet looks like. In Xataka. Available at https://www.xataka.com/otros/asi-es-el-mapa-de-todos-los-cables-submarinos-que-le-dan-forma-a-internet

[3] BBC News Mundo. (February 11, 2019). Russia’s plans to disconnect from the internet as part of its preparations for a cyberwar. Available at https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-47199738

[4] Ibíd.

[5] Mena, M. (August 11, 2021). What happens on the Internet in a minute? In Statista. Available at https://es.statista.com/grafico/17539/datos-creados-online-en-un-minuto/

[6] Telefónica (November 16, 2021). What happens in one minute on the Internet in 2021? Available at https://www.telefonica.com/es/sala-comunicacion/que-pasa-en-un-minuto-en-internet-en-2021/

[7] Rankia. (July 26, 2021). How much money does the stock market move daily? Available at https://www.rankia.co/blog/analisis-colcap/4769854-cuanto-dinero-mueve-bolsa-diariamente