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Internet networks unable to handle H1N1 telework traffic: GAO

As concerns rage over the spread of the H1N1 flu, a federal report showed that a pandemic that would keep millions of Americans at home could also overload Internet networks.

Adults working from home, children accessing video files and playing games online and families logging on for information about the illness would overwhelm residential Internet networks that were never built to have a majority of users on the Web at the same time, according to an October report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The federal government is in disarray when it comes to dealing with such a scenario, the GAO reported. The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of communications networks during times of national emergency. But it says it doesn't have a plan to deal with overloaded Internet networks -- an essential resource to keep the economy humming and residents informed and connected during a pandemic. And the DHS hasn't coordinated with agencies like the Federal Communications Commission to create clear guidelines for how telecom, cable and satellite providers can minimize congestion.

Such confusion "would increase the risk that the federal government will not be able to respond rapidly or effectively if a pandemic quickly emerges," the GAO reported.

Network operators like Comcast, AT&T, Cox and Verizon are limited in their options.
They could add more bandwidth capacity and lay down private lines for essential workers, for example, but that is expensive and would take too long. Shutting down certain Web sites or prioritizing traffic could run into technical regulatory hurdles, the report said.

A cable broadband provider, for example, couldn't give priority to critical workers, such as those who trade stocks and bonds because the Internet service provider can't tell what kind of customer is on their network and can't look into the kind of content they are accessing.

An Internet service provider could decide to slow all connections in a certain neighborhood, but then that network operator would be violating contracts with customers, according to the report.

DHS says it isn't sure whether it has authority over the Internet and if it should be the agency to deal with network congestion. DHS further said it didn't know which agency had clear or specific authority to allow telecom, cable and satellite companies to block or slow traffic to cope with congestion. The Federal Communications Commission grants exceptions to its Internet access rules that would allow prioritization of certain traffic in instances where public safety is in jeopardy.

But in doing so, the GAO notes, there are tradeoffs.

"Private Internet providers have limited ability to prioritize traffic or take other actions that could assist critical teleworkers. Some actions, such as reducing customers’ transmission speeds or blocking popular Web sites, could negatively impact e-commerce and require government authorization," reported the GAO.

Meanwhile, the H1N1 flu continues to impact the nation and has kept many families home with the illness,

House Energy and Commerce Committee members commissioned the report, asking the GAO to specifically look at how the securities industry would be impacted if many of its workers telecommute.

photo credit: The Associated Press

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 27, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
 | Tags: fcc, gao, h1n1, homeland security, swine flu, telecommuting  
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