Social media company Facebook blamed a service outage on 4 October lasting nearly six hours on configuration changes on the backbone routers that coordinate network traffic between its data centers, causing “issues” that interrupted their communication. The blackout hit WhatsApp and Instagram as well as the main Facebook service.
In a blog post, Facebook said its engineers had discovered that the disruption to network traffic had a “cascading effect” on the way its data centers communicate, bringing its services to a halt. It said the underlying cause of the loss of service affected many of the internal tools and systems it uses in its day-to-day operations, complicating its attempts to diagnose and resolve the problem quickly.
Facebook’s outage this week was the worst to hit the social network since 2008. While six hours of no service would be bad for any internet company, it was particularly serious for Facebook given the number of users and the extent to which the entire world has come to rely on its products. According to Facebook, 2.76 billion people (about one-third of the human race) used at least one of its products each day in June 2021, and WhatsApp handles over 100 billion messages a day. So on that scale, six hours is extremely significant.
Not only that, but the outage served as a reminder of just how deeply Facebook is intertwined with the everyday commerce and social life of the entire world. Facebook itself, Instagram, and WhatsApp were all equally affected, and WhatsApp in particular has become essential to commerce in many countries. In Brazil, for example, it is installed on nearly every phone in the country and serves as the basic way of doing business for many entities, large and small. The situation is similar in India.
The outage occurred just as Facebook was undergoing a very public embarrassment in the U.S., its home country, where a whistleblower is testifying before the Senate about the company’s practices with regard to its impact on young users and other related issues. Facebook is also currently the target of a revived antitrust suit by the Federal Trade Commission.
But for Facebook’s billions of users, the possibility of a lack of service is far more concerning than worries about the potentially negative effects of a presence of service. This week’s massive outage was a wake-up call as to just how dependent on just one provider entire economies have become.
With that in mind, it is possible that there could be an opening here for mobile operators to regain some of the ground they lost to WhatsApp in particular but also to Facebook itself over the past several years. Operators could target their messaging to users who are alarmed that they placed all their eggs in one basket in allowing their businesses and private lives to become so deeply dependent on Facebook and its apps. MNOs could make the point that using the operator’s SMS rather than WhatsApp means that the connectivity does not depend on the servers of one global company but rather resides within one’s own country. An MNO can position itself as a trusted entity that has been providing reliable service to subscribers all along. Considering that Facebook’s excuses for the outage came across as particularly lame and opaque, it may not be as difficult as it may seem for operators to take back some market share.