How Would an Email Outage Affect the Web?


Have you ever been at work when your email communication goes out? Do you ever hear people around the office who say that since email is down they might as well go home because they’re not going to get any work done anyway? Mass email communication for the workplace has been around since around the mid-1990s, and today it is the primary form of communication that people use in business, surpassing even phone calls. In fact, there are about 183 billion emails sent every day throughout the world for various business and personal reasons.

Recently when an underwater cable was cut, severing email communication for customers in the United Kingdom for several days, people found out just how much of their life depended on that email connection. The story begs the question, what would the impact of an email outage have on the Internet? To answer the question requires a look at exactly how we use email, how often, and why.

The History of Email Communication

While the first recorded electronic mail (email) occurred several decades ago as part of government experiments—such as MAILBOX, used at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1960s, or ARPANet, a government program used in the 1970s—it did not become a significant part of business and daily life until about the 1990s. In 2013 there were 3.9 billion registered email accounts around the world, and that number is expected to grow by 1 billion over the next four years, according to the Email Statistics Report by the Radicati Group. In fact, even with the vast amount of resources available online, the part of the world wide web that people use the most is still email.

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About 25 percent of all email accounts are related to a business, while the other 75 percent are personal email accounts, but even though business emails only make up 1 out of every 4 accounts, there are over 100 billion business emails sent each day. That’s about 56 percent of the 183 billion daily emails flying around the web.

The Impact of Email Outages

Yahoo customers in the UK recently discovered just how dependent we have become on email communication, when an underwater fiber cable was cut and they were left without access to their emails for several days. It impacted Internet providers BT and Sky, both of whose customers were unable to get to their Yahoo email servers while a temporary fix was put in place, so the cable could eventually be repaired.

While the lack of email communication was frustrating for many consumers, even more frustrating was often the length of time it took for companies to communicate advances in repairs. In fact, companies should take note that in the absence of email communication, many people will likely take to other social media channels such as Twitter to express frustration and outrage.

While it’s unclear exactly what caused the underwater cable to be severed, what is very clear is that many customers who rely on email communication were upset at the prospect of not having it for several days.

Do We Depend Too Much On Our Technology?

For many people technology has become intertwined into our daily personal and professional lives. In fact, a 2012 New York Times article highlighted the fact that even some people who do tech for a living in Silicon Valley believe that we have become too addicted to our devices, and it’s starting to impact our interpersonal relationships. Even those who work at the master of all social networks—a director at Facebook—believe that it’s good to separate ourselves from our technology and our devices every now and them. It’s part of an overall movement toward balancing our technology life with our real life.

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Research has revealed that the constant pings, rings, and alerts that we get from receiving an email or getting a notification from our social networks might actually have an addictive quality to it. Over time that addiction could even be harmful to people’s ability to have interpersonal interactions.

When it comes to business communication, emails have become an extremely efficient way to communicate, which makes it even harder when they are unavailable. The economic impact of email communication can be significant, slowing down contact both within and outside of the company. Since email is used to coordinate with colleagues, respond to customer inquiries, and communicate with suppliers, the loss of these few simple clicks can slow everything down.

In addition, employee productivity is harmed by the lack of email communication in your company. Even if employees could keep working without email, there is a perceived handicap in day-to-day business operations that can be very detrimental to overall productivity. When email goes down within your company, the best thing to do is stress that people can continue working and provide information about what else could be done during that time, and how it will be beneficial because there will be fewer distractions while the email is out.

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There are some industries that rely almost exclusively on email communication as a means to connect with customers. For these companies an outage would be particularly devastating to business operations. Some of these industries include:

  • Financial
  • Manufacturing
  • Information Technology
  • Data Centers
  • Safety and Security
  • Email Marketing Firms
  • Online, and Tech-Focused Companies

Limiting Email Downtime

While you won’t be able to protect email communications from every external risk (like the severed underwater cable in the UK), there are some things you can do to keep the business running and minimize the impact of email losses:

  • Make sure you have alternate means of communication both internally and within customers, such as phone or fax numbers.
  • Set up alternate email addresses where you can access your information if email from one particular provider is out for a time.
  • Inform your customers when email communication is down and keep it updated regularly with any information that you have about when it will be back up, plus provide information about alternate communication methods.

In the meantime you may also want to consider moving toward a workplace where you rely less on email. In fact, since it can be a productivity-killer and can even raise stress levels among employees, some businesses today are moving to reduce email usage in the workplace. If you are interested, you might consider moving toward other options, such as instant messaging or video calling online, which offer some of the same instant communication benefits but without the constant ping and ding of that addicting email inbox.

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