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For Time Warner Cable, more network means more problems

Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing On Comcast Acquisition Of Time WarnerSenate Judiciary Committee Hearing On Comcast Acquisition Of Time Warner
Left to right: Comcast EVP David Cohen and Time Warner Cable CFO Arthur Minson Jr. during an April 2014 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. about the companies' proposed merger.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg—Getty Images

Comcast’s $45.2 billion bid to acquire Time Warner Cable is far from a done deal. But its desire to combine the two largest cable operators in the United States suggests that consolidation may come with unexpected side effects.

Early Wednesday morning, Time Warner Cable (TWC) suffered a broad, hours-long outage that mostly affected its Internet and On Demand customers in the eastern half of the United States. TWC, which has about 11.4 million subscribers nationwide, was able to restore service by mid-morning and issued an apology for the interruption.

Bobby Amirshahi, a TWC spokesman, said only that the service interruption was the result of “an issue with our Internet backbone,” and did not offer any other additional information on the specific cause or causes. In a USA Today report from yesterday, Amirshahi noted that the network was undergoing routine network maintenance at the time of the interruption, around 4:30 a.m. Eastern.

The outage was ironic, says Charles King, principal analyst at the technology research firm Pund-IT. The Internet was originally designed and built to be resilient enough to enable communications to continue in the event of a nuclear attack, he says, yet an otherwise unremarkable issue at one of the world’s largest cable companies can effectively halt Internet access across huge swathes of the country. “TWC’s problem was the equivalent of a large portion of the on-ramps to the Interstate Highway System being simultaneously blocked off,” he says.

It wasn’t that long ago that TWC settled with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (it paid a $1.1 million fine) for responding too slowly to past outages. This time, the breadth of the outage, rather than the speed of its repair, seemed to be the most pressing concern. Though the completion of a merger with Comcast (CMCSA) is many months away—at least 2015, according to the latest predictions from Comcast’s chief executive, Brian Roberts—a merger between the two largest Internet Service Providers in the country and the eventual unification of their networks and back-end systems “could increase the likelihood of a massive super outage,” says Betsy Page Sigman, Ph.D., of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

It’s a future that sounds ominous at best, though consumers aren’t the worst off in such a scenario, King says. “Even as TWC-Comcast are planning to spend tens of billions of dollars to centrally control Internet access, end users simply went around them,” he said. “That should give pause to the TWC-Comcast shareholders who will be financing the deal.”

Another problem, according to George Mason University professor Kirk Borne, is that consumer, business, and government customers all require increasing amounts of bandwidth to transmit information. Today’s network infrastructure in the U.S. may not be able to sustain their “insatiable appetite” for bandwidth. “The scary news is that the bandwidth demands are not decreasing,” Borne says. “It is all about the data, the big data, which is increasing exponentially. Year on year, the amount of data is increasing at a rate somewhere between 60 and 100 percent per annum. That means that we are moving around at least 1,000 times more data every ten years.”

Without more information, it’s impossible to determine if any of these factors played a part in the weekend’s outage. The disruption remains an uncomfortable reminder that, as society moves toward an Internet of Everything future where always-on connectivity is ubiquitous, it needs more nimble ways to manage issues that start local but quickly escalate to national scale. “If the big Internet providers—i.e. the cable companies—and federal regulators don’t address the infrastructure demands of this brave new world of ‘ginormous data’ and its accompanying bandwidth requirements, then we may be seeing more such outages of the type that we witnessed today, if not worse,” Borne adds.

For now, all eyes will be on how cable providers deal with today’s limitations.

“The world is an imperfect place and sometimes things break,” says Steve Beck, founder of management consultancy cg42. “The challenge is how you handle it when it happens.”