Flu pandemic could choke 'Net, force usage restrictions

Pandemic could potentially produce a bandwidth-choking surge in online traffic

Many companies and government agencies are counting on legions of teleworkers to keep their operations running in the event of an influenza pandemic. But those plans may quickly run aground as millions of people turn to the Internet for news and even entertainment, potentially producing a bandwidth-choking surge in online traffic.

Such a surge would almost certainly prompt calls to restrict or prioritize traffic, such as blocking video transmissions wherever possible, according to business continuity planners who gathered on Friday at a SunGard Availability Systems hot-site facility in northern New Jersey to consider the impact of a pandemic on the Internet.

Businesses as well as home users likely would be asked to voluntarily restrict high-bandwidth traffic, the planners said. And if asking didn't work, they warned, government action to restrict traffic might well follow.

"Is there a need for a YouTube during a national emergency?" asked John Thomas, vice president of enterprise systems at a large, New York-based financial institution that he asked not be identified.

Whether the avian flu will morph into a human pandemic is unclear. But if it does, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of deaths could result worldwide. To try to limit a pandemic's spread, many people will seek to work from home, either voluntarily or under government quarantine orders. Consequently, "the demand for communication will soar," said Renate Noone, vice president of professional services at SunGard's Availability Services unit.

Businesses and government agencies are in the best position to deal with any online traffic surges, via the use of redundant communications systems and techniques such as diverse routing. But that may not help teleworkers or customers and business partners who are trying to access systems remotely, said Noone and other pandemic planners.

"I think it's definitely the most vulnerable part of the equation," said Bernard O'Neill, vice president and chief network officer at Prudential Financial Inc., referring to the communications problems that teleworkers may face.

For their most critical workers, employers can sign contracts with telecommunications services providers for business-class services, such as dedicated lines. Companies may balk at paying for such services to prepare for a problem that may never occur, but waiting could be a risky strategy. For instance, if the World Health Organization raises its pandemic threat alert from the current level of stage 3 on the WHO's six-stage scale, demand for backup communications services could outstrip the ability of vendors to provide them, said participants in Friday's day-long pandemic forum.

Many of the people who attended the event have been hardened by experience and know how bad things can get in a disaster. The skyline of New York is visible from the back steps of the SunGard data centre where the forum took place. In their comments and questions, the participants cited the disruptions wrought by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as by Hurricane Katrina and various hurricanes in Florida -- even the impact of the recent killer tornado in that state.

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Patrick Thibodeau

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