How vulnerable do you feel?

Thursday, 04 April, 2013

A new study gauges public feelings of vulnerability to failure of the internet, mobile phones, electricity.

What would you do if the electricity failed without warning? Or the internet? Or the mobile network? How would you be affected and how would you cope?

It’s no surprise perhaps that in our technologically wired world, many of us would feel lost without access to services that we take for granted. A recent article in the Canberra Times told of the disruption experienced by an entire Victorian community when fire destroyed a Telstra exchange. Landlines stopped working, as did the internet, mobile phones, even banks and ATMs. Those who normally relied on EFTPOS and didn’t carry much cash suddenly found themselves unable to purchase petrol or other supplies.

This scenario could be repeated anywhere at any time, in any technologically advanced country. A recent study on Swedish attitudes to technology and their dependence on it has lessons for us in Australasia too. It found that Swedish habits and dependence on infrastructure have changed radically in recent years. Access to electricity is - not surprisingly - most important of all. But almost as important nowadays is having access to the internet and mobile phones. Today, landline phones, like radio and television, have basically outlived their usefulness, especially among young people. These are some of the conclusions that can be drawn from the study.

The time it takes for a person to start missing infrastructure is short. After electricity (which most people would miss very quickly), interruption to internet service is most noticeable. About one-third of people would immediately miss internet access if it was interrupted, while just over half would miss it within one hour. Here, again, radio and television come in much further down the list.

Similarly, people have little patience when waiting for interruptions to service to be rectified. A sixth of all respondents stated that interruptions to electricity, mobile phone or internet services must be resolved within a maximum of 10 minutes, while about half can accept up to a one-hour interruption.

Levels of both dependence and patience differ among the age groups. Nine of 10 respondents aged 15-35 years report that they are dependent on both mobile phones and the internet, while one-third say that they are “extremely dependent”. Two of three respondents aged 23-35 years say that they are not at all dependent on a landline phone.

When asked what would be easiest to do without for a week, respondents said that they could most easily do without public transport, radio and landline phones.

One common aspect of the most in-demand types of infrastructure - electricity, mobile phones and internet - is that they are also the most vulnerable. Storms and snowstorms severely impact cables and masts, which necessitates a high level of preparedness to quickly bring systems back online after an interruption.

The study was conducted by consumer information firm Cint on behalf of Relacom, a Swedish technology service company that offers strategic solutions within telecommunications, electricity and M2M (machine-to-machine) markets.

The survey included questions about attitudes to different types of infrastructure (electricity, telephony, internet, cars, public transport, radio and television). It was conducted in late February 2013 and included 1051 respondents across Sweden, between the ages of 15 and 80 years.

Percentage of respondents who are fairly to extremely dependent on:

  • Electricity: 97% are dependent (48% are extremely dependent)

  • Mobile phone: 84% are dependent (17% are extremely dependent) 

  • Wired internet: 81% are dependent (21% are extremely dependent)

  • Car: 66% are dependent (13% are extremely dependent)
  • TV: 60% are dependent (7% are extremely dependent)

  • Public transport: 41% are dependent (8% are extremely dependent)
  • Radio: 39% are dependent (4% are extremely dependent)

  • Landline phone: 35% are dependent (2% are extremely dependent)

How quickly would respondents start missing infrastructure in the event of a disruption?:

  • Electricity: 82% within an hour (70% immediately)
  • Internet: 52% within an hour (32% immediately)

  • Phone: 37% within an hour (18% immediately) 

  • TV: 25% within an hour (15% immediately)
  • Car: 23% within an hour (18% immediately)
  • Radio: 21% within an hour (13% immediately)

  • Public transport: 16% within an hour (10% immediately)
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