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The Computer Corner


By Charles Miller


Another Event in the Balkans Got Out of Control


This month marks the 104th anniversary of an event that profoundly changed the course of world history. It was June 28, 1914 that the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, setting off a chain of events leading to the Great War. I can imagine many readers think I have gone way off track with subject matter for The Computer Corner, but I do have a point:

A century ago, world leaders were still coming to terms with how interconnected their world had become, and they failed to appreciate how a single event in the Balkans could spiral out of control, wreaking consequences on the entire globe. Few people were aware of and even fewer understood the enormity of events in Sarajevo.

This year, in an eerily-analogous situation, another event in the Balkans got out of control for a while. A dispute involving the power companies in Serbia and Kosovo over the management of their electric power grids quickly mushroomed. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, the problem descended across the Continent (apologies to Sir Winston). Soon there were thousands or hundreds of thousands of clocks in all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe…Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, and Sofia, all running six minutes slow.

A lot of clocks base their accuracy on the 50 or 60 cycles of the electric supply. So when Kosovo and Serbia failed for three months to balance their electrical consumption with the other 23 countries on the European grid, this resulted in thousands of clocks showing the wrong time in all the 25 countries. Fortunately, this issue was resolved.

In addition to the electric power grid, there is another ubiquitous utility we all use every day and that is the Internet. This network depends on a communications backbone owned by several huge multinational companies (AT&T, British Telecom, Nippon Telecommunications, et al) that sell Internet connectivity to smaller regional companies (Telmex, Megacable, etc). For the most part, the huge multinationals do not sell Internet to each other but rely on peering agreements that ensure each company is sharing an equal volume of traffic with others.

The importance of cooperation in the form of these multilateral peering agreements between the big communications companies cannot be overstated. In exchange for reciprocity, not payment, the companies owning the servers that make up the Internet backbone allow data to travel through their routers to other destinations outside their networks. This is what makes the Internet work, and for a very reasonable price.

So the next time you use the Internet, you can be glad the international telecommunications giants are not squabbling like the power companies in Kosovo and Serbia, because that could have an impact on all of us who use the Internet no matter where we live.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at)


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