Bird flu and internet integrity

The question has been broached here before by our commenters: if a pandemic is a threat to our civil infrastructure, how do we know the internet will continue to function? It's fine to tell workers to telecommute, but what if the information highway the commuters travel is grid locked?

Good questions without good answers. But information technology professionals are at least thinking about it. The IT trade mag, Computer World, has a story about a simulation held recently at the world Economic Forum by management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. The scenario was pandemic flu arriving in German from Eastern Europe:

Disturbingly, that was one finding of a simulation, or war game, held in January in Davos, Switzerland, by the World Economic Forum and management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. More than 30 senior industry and governmental executives played out the arrival of the flu in Germany from Eastern Europe -- and the results weren't pretty.

"We assumed total absentees of 30 percent to 60 percent trying to work from home, which would have overwhelmed the Internet," said participant Bill Thoet, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton. "We did not assume that the backbone would be gone, but that the edge of the network, where everyone was trying to access their office from home, would be overwhelmed. The absence of maintenance was also a factor. The person who brought up the problem was himself a CEO of an Internet service provider.

"The conclusion [of imminent collapse] was not absolute, and the situation was not digitally simulated, but the idea of everyone working from home appears untenable," Thoet said. (Computer World)

Lamont Wood's Computer World story was a little more optimistic about the US.

"We don't believe that the Internet will be compromised within a matter of hours or days," said Brent Woodworth, worldwide manager for IBM's Crisis Response Team, which does consulting on disaster preparedness. "Most Internet traffic is reroutable, and as different areas are affected at different rates by a pandemic, the networks could anticipate increased traffic and adjust accordingly -- with the caveat that critical components will be maintained."

US observers note that internet traffic has been growing very rapidly for more than a decade, with network re-engineering growing to keep pace. Experiences with local events like the NY Transit strike, which saw many people working from home for the first day or two, did not clog the network. But some worry that while the road might handle the traffic, the parking lot at the destination would be full:

Within the Internet, there could indeed be problems, agreed Paul Froutan, vice president of research and development at Rackspace Managed Hosting Ltd., a large Web-hosting company in San Antonio. "A large company has large amounts of data traffic that never leaves the office," he noted. "If you send people home to do the same work remotely, that could cause a problem."
The hope is that demand will self-regulate. Users will quickly learn that they have to try again at off-peak hours and make do with slower server responses.

"A pandemic will not bring down the Internet the least little bit, but there will be local problems," said Eric Paulak, an analyst at Gartner Corporations that plan to rely on telecommuting should act now, before an emergency, to reserve sufficient inbound bandwidth, he said.

"If you have a third of your people working from home, you will see your bandwidth requirements tripling," Paulak said, noting that a virtual private network will take about 250Kbit/sec. per user. Rather than pay upfront for the tripling, he suggested getting "shadow service," with reserved bandwidth that costs about 25 percent of a live connection. There are also burstable connections, where the rated connection speed represents the maximum or burst speed and the user pays only for what is actually used.

So on the checklist for continuity of operations, businesses need to include sufficient server bandwidth to handle telecommuting.

And you thought you had enough to think about.

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The Internet will undoubtedly be a vital resource during any widespread pandemic. Use of email communication and local "information portals" should be worked into hospital disaster response plans.
I would, however, be much more concerned over public health bandwidth than Internet bandwidth.

Does anyone here believe what I have seen posted in emails to me that the US government is threatening to shut down websites during the pandemic, specifically websites that carry pandemic flu opinions and criticisms of the US government's actions during the pandemic?

Is this believable?

Is this possible under martial law?

We've seen some pretty intense and aggressive censorship taking place on one of the flu newsgroups now, and a long standing undertone that the newsgroup has been threatened with internet access blockage.

If true, it's outrageous. If not true, it needs to be fully aired. We're talkin' about Chinese style censorship in the US by the US gov't. If true and the person who said this can be identified, that would be something worthwhile.

Meanwhile, either there's a managerial misimpression or the world is about to get another dose of censorship, this time, unlike hidden sequences, it's potentially an attack on the freedom of information (as it has a chilling effect on the owners of that website).

It won't be simply bandwidth which will be an issue, per the CIDRAP Biz Continuity Conference at the beginning of 2006, from the mouths of the guys who run the backbone pipes.

A chilling effect on free speach, if true, is a red flag to everyone here and in each of the pandemic flu websites.

If you want more info on this, you know how to email me, or post here. I'll share what I know, privately.

By Gaudia Ray (not verified) on 30 Jun 2006 #permalink

Gaudia: No, I have not seen this and I do not consider it believable or plausible of even do-able.

Much more worrisome than the breakdown of the internet is keeping the electrical system up. If electricity fails so does the internet, the ability to pump gasoline, water and sewage treatment, cold storage of food and corpses, the functioning of hospitals, traffic lights etc etc etc. Electricity is the form of energy that defines modern civilization. It is generated mostly by burning coal and natural gas. If one generating plant goes off line it affects the whole connected grid - remember a few years ago when the North East grid went down. It appears that a small accident balloned into a complete black out of the North East. If you want to get really scared read this Having become large and interconnected the grid has become vulnerable. Think about absenteeism causing the lack of highly trained people to manage the grid. Then think about an extended period without electricity. How long can you use generators - especially since electricity is needed to refine gasoline, and to pump it. What happens in a modern hospital when they cannot get fuel for their generators? Etc. Admittedly hard to think about because even a week without electricity would shatter our society.

Critical workers needed to maintain generating plants and grid switching infrastructure, may "reverse quarantine" by living fulltime at the power plants. The same may occur with the telephone network.

As for internet bandwidth, I suspect this issue will be self-regulating. Since the advent of broadband, most of us have become lazy: over-using graphics, video, fancy document formatting, and so on, all of which are unnecessary for the vast majority of real business communication. But most of us can also remember when it was *all text and nothing but text.* The bad habits of wrapping every communication in layers of graphic clutter will be easy enough to kick once people see how much faster it is to stick to words and numbers.

I do not know how valid the concerns are about the government censoring the internet.

I do know that the best way to limit the abuse of goverment powers is the limit the power and size of the goverment.

The goverment that governs the least governs the best.

Smaller is better.

Whatever power you do not want a corrupt administration to have should be witheld from a benevolent administration.

I mean this to apply to almost all aspects of goverment. The federal government should only be in the business of doing what the states cannot do. The states should only be in the business of doing what the cities or the individuals cannot do.

There are many nice, convenient government programs but they just aren't necessary.

Regarding public health programs and flu pandemic:

Vaccines, antivirals, other drugs, food and other supplies, even if they can be invented, manufactured and stockpiled by the goverment will do us no good if they can't be distributed.

The most effective efforts to help will probably be self-preparedness, social distancing, and inreased numbers of respirators in hospitals.

So far, flu blogs have had a greater impact than government in promoting self-preparedness, social distancing and sip plans.

A grassroots demand for respirators applied directly at hospitals could result in hospitals purchasing more. Alternatively, local, state, or federal programs could provide hospitals with respirators. Unfortunately, any government program aimed at providing respirators would include strings, pork, graft, corruption, taxation and the accompanying inefficiency, etc.