The outage cut the power to one of three Internet connection points in California operated by BBN, one of the nation's largest Internet service providers (ISPs). For 12 hours, almost 400 BBN customers -- including Hewlett Packard and the Los Angeles Times -- labored in varying states of virtual darkness.
OUTAGES BECOMING TOO COMMON
BBN, based in Cambridge, Mass., was mortified by the blackout. Along with a team of executives, BBN Chairman and CEO George H. Conrades spent much of the 12 hours on the phone reassuring customers.
"We personally spoke to every business customer who was affected," said BBN spokesman Peter Thonis.
Although the company calls what happened "a once in 10-year kind of event," outages affecting ISPs large and small have become disquietingly common.
NetCom Online Communication Services, a San Jose, Calif., company that bills itself as the nation's largest ISP, went down for 13 hours in June. The Microsoft Network shut down for 10 hours three days later. In perhaps the most publicized outage of late, America Online, which recently announced plans to go into Web hosting, was blacked out for 19 hours in August, throwing 6 million users off line.
SHOULD ISPs BE DOING MORE?
And that list doesn't include innumerable outages suffered by smaller ISPs, many of which can't afford, or won't buy, expensive backup systems.
The problem raises obvious questions for marketers, who pay sizable sums to keep their Web sites running and their e-mail humming: Should ISPs be doing more to protect their customers, or are outages just a cost of marketing yourself online?
The answer is yes to both questions, said David Goodtree, an industry analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, who is working on a report about Web hosting services.
"Outages on the Internet are happening, will keep happening and will get worse before they get better," said Mr. Goodtree, who said many ISPs fail to provide sufficient fail-safe mechanisms.
But from a marketing viewpoint, he said, "withdrawing from the Internet is not the right response."
Goodtree noted that Web hosting, although still in its infancy, already is a $150 million-a-year business -- a number he predicts will grow to more than $5 billion annually by 2000.
BLACKOUT IMPACT VARIES
With that kind of money at stake, he said, major players will consolidate what is now a fragmented industry, spending whatever it takes to make the system reliable.
The impact of a blackout like the one that blindsided BBN varies from customer to customer. Hewlett Packard, for example, lost its internal e-mail capability for eight hours but not its corporate Web site, which was maintained by another company.
"There definitely was an inconvenience factor," said Anne McGrath, a spokeswoman for the computer company.
The Los Angeles Times Web site went dark, but other than having to make good on advertisements, officials there said the impact was relatively minor.
"We'll have to make up lost impressions for our advertisers, since our rates are based on guaranteed numbers of impressions," said Lemont Southworth, the Times' systems operation manager. Business customers, he said, were understanding of the situation.
Officials at BBN and other major ISPs say there is only so much a company can do to protect against blackouts, especially those caused by power outages or "acts of God."
"If you were down in Florida and had a hurricane and you lost your telephone service, would you blame the phone company?" asked BBN's Mr. Thonis.
The trick, said Glee Cady, NetCom's manager of public policy, is figuring out what you can afford to have fail while still maintaining the integrity of the system. "But everything," she warned, "fails sooner or later."
That's true, said Forrester's Mr. Goodtree, which is why marketers need to carefully assess an ISPs reliability.
He said marketers need to ask about diversity and redundancy. "You need to be sure there are backup and fail-safe options."
Mr. Thonis said redundancy is always good, but not always necessary. Multiple Internet connections, he said, are one example.
"It's more important to have multiple backups," he said, such as batteries or generators. "It's more important to make sure you have redundancies built into your system."
Mr. Thonis said BBN had battery backup at Stanford, but it could only keep the network up for two hours. The company trucked in generators, which have been left at the campus.
LOOK AT MORE THAN EQUIPMENT
Ms. Cady said NetCom maintains multiple lines and redundant servers, but said no company can afford to make every component redundant.
"You need to know what is mission-critical," she said. When there is a problem, Ms. Cady said, some customers may not get quite the service they are used to, but the system should stay up.
But Rich Monosson, the director of marketing at hosting firm Instant Internet Corp., Chatsworth, Calif., said equipment isn't the only thing he would look at when assessing an ISP.
The quality of the people writing the code for the Web site can influence the site's viability and reliability, he said, as well as its speed of execution, content and attractiveness.
"People are the key because the machines are only as reliable as the people building, programming and maintaining them," said Mr. Monosson, who said 90% of his customers were unhappy with their previous provider.
That, he said, "says it all."