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Ask Dr. Universe: Why does the internet go down?

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 29, 2020

By Washington State University

Dr. Universe: Why does the internet go down? – Mia, 11, Sheridan, Wyoming

Dear Mia,

The internet has helped many people connect with classmates, friends and family during the pandemic. But you’re right, sometimes the connection gets lost.

My friend Dingwen Tao, an assistant professor of computer science at Washington State University, said we can think about the internet like a highway of information.

You might remember from our question about how the internet works that information, like the data that makes up your favorite cat video or science website, travels through electronic signals we cannot see with our eyes.

Tao said these electrical signals also can move through a system of underground wires and cables. The cables and wires run from where you are using the internet to a local internet office to a regional internet office.

One reason the internet might go down is that there is a broken link between these locations. Or these links might get overloaded with information.

“You and your neighbors can share the same link connected to the central office,” Tao said. “It’s like people are sharing the same road, but sometimes if too many people are using the same road, there will be a lot of traffic.”

When there is more information than the links – like those cables or the electrical signals – can handle, then the internet might go down.

Tao said there are a few other things that can get in the way of electrical signals.

For example, even a thick wall can block Wi-Fi signals that carry information delivering, say, your favorite podcast. If you are in one room, and the router – a device that picks up signals and pushes them to their destination – is in another room, you might lose the signal.

Nature also can play a part in making your internet go down, Tao said. A tree might fall down and knock out some wires during a big storm, or a fire might cause damage to cables.

The disaster could even be hundreds of miles away from you and closer to the regional internet office. But because you are connected to the central office, you and your neighbors might still lose your internet service.

The connections we can make online are important, so many people around the world are helping bring the internet to places that don’t have internet access or where the internet is really slow.

Here in Washington, some of my friends at the university are working on a project to help people across the state get access to the internet, including in rural places. The work is helping students get the technology they need to go to school online so they can keep learning.

As you learn more in school, you might discover more about the inner workings of the internet. Whenever the internet goes down, there are people who use their deep knowledge of the technology and great problem-solving skills to help us figure out what might be wrong.

They help us get back on the information highway so we can stay connected – even when we are stuck at home.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a project from Washington State University. Submit a question at askdruniverse.wsu.edu.

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