How telcos and ISPs are prepping for a pandemic

Network management and network grooming key in an environment where people are working remotely due to an outbreak.

Network operators and IT professionals already worried about how hurricanes and financial meltdowns will impact their work lives can add another potential catastrophe to their list of concerns: a global pandemic.

During a panel sponsored by the FCC in Washington, DC, Thursday, representatives from telecom carriers and ISPs discussed what steps they've been taking to prepare for the mass outbreak of a disease such as influenza, and also described the needs and challenges they would have to meet to keep communications up and running during a major global crisis. The most important tool at ISPs' disposal during a serious pandemic, panelists agreed, was that of network management.

Christopher Guttman-McCabe, the vice president for regulatory affairs for the CTIA wireless association, predicted that during a severe pandemic, many workers would either work exclusively from home or from more remote locations that would limit their potential exposure to disease.

"Network management and network grooming will absolutely come into play if we have a significant number of people living in shelters or staying at home to work," he said. "A pandemic is rather similar to the aftermath of what happens during a natural disaster such as a hurricane. Carriers need to determine where public safety needs the most help, and also where key 911 facilities and key hospitals are located. From there they can boost key cellular signals depending on the circumstances."

Robert Mayer, the vice president of industry and state affairs for the US Telecom Association, said carriers and ISPs would face significant difficulties in limiting the amount of high-bandwidth traffic that occurred in residential areas during a pandemic. Because residential areas are out of the control of corporate IT departments and aren't equipped with the same traffic-shaping capabilities as enterprise networks, Mayer said carriers would either have to directly interfere with Web traffic or at least educate people on what they should and should not be downloading during national emergencies.

In particular, Mayer said people would have to be told not to stream videos or use peer-to-peer technology that could clog the local network and prevent basic communications such as e-mail from getting through. While Mayer acknowledged that the network neutrality debate has made some carriers "nervous" about giving priority to certain traffic, he said in a true national disaster, the FCC would no doubt give carriers leeway to shape traffic to give vital Web communications the highest priority.

"As people migrate to a residential usage area for work, we could see traffic patterns that go way beyond our normal peak traffic hours," he said. "And if that happens, we're going to see some congestion. We don't know how many children will be home and trying to access the Internet along with their parents."

But even if carriers were allowed to shape traffic as they pleased, Mayer acknowledged that there would be severe limits to what they could accomplish. For example, he noted that it would be impossible for carriers to know whether someone was working from home as a physician and needed quick access to important medical information, or whether someone working from home worked in retail. This, he and other panelists agreed, is why carriers and ISPs will need to effectively communicate to the public what is and what is not smart protocol for communicating during a national emergency.

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