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Would the bird flu kill the Internet, too?

Telecommuters could overwhelm the network, some say

By Lamont Wood
June 28, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - If a bird flu pandemic sweeps the nation, we could avoid infection by working from home  via the Internet.

Or, hammered by overuse, the Internet could shut down within two to four days of an outbreak, eliminating telecommuting as a viable option.

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 Inc. 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% to 60% 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.

On this side of the Atlantic, predictions about how the Internet would fare in the face of a pandemic are less dire.

"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."

Besides, mass telecommuting in the face of a pandemic would just accelerate a trend that has been under way for a decade, said Verizon Communications Inc. spokesman Mark Marchand in Basking Ridge, N.J. Voice and data traffic have both been shifting to the suburbs, and the carriers have been re-engineering their networks to follow it, he said. Marchand referred to the strike of the New York City transit workers just before Christmas last year (see "IT aids New Yorkers during transit strike") . "A lot of people worked from home and the network handled it," he recalled.

"If we were having this conversation 10 years ago, I would have had to say that mass telecommuting was not an option," he added. "But remember, we just handle access -- after you get on the Internet, that's another question."

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