Flu pandemic could choke Internet, requiring usage restrictions

Expected surge in online traffic puts telework plans at risk

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 fall apart 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. 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 daylong 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 center 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.

For pandemic planners, nothing can be taken for granted. Elizabeth Byrnes, a continuity planner at AT&T Inc., was asked how the telecommunications services provider would handle a hurricane or another secondary problem that occurs during a pandemic. Byrnes said the issue has received consideration within AT&T.

But in general, the focus of her presentation was on reviewing the company's plans to ensure continued operations during a pandemic. Byrnes insisted that AT&T would be able to meet its customer service-level agreements but also acknowledged that there are unknowns. For instance, AT&T has identified critical employees who would be asked to come into the office during a pandemic, she said. But there's no way of knowing in advance how people will react. "Will they come in? I don't know," Byrnes said.

A pandemic also could threaten the Internet and corporate networks in other ways. From a geopolitical perspective, a major influenza outbreak could be perceived by enemies as leaving the U.S. in "a weakened state," said George Johnson, founder and chief technology officer of The ESP Group LLC, an application services provider in Arlington, Va., that focuses on development of secure systems. That could result in heightened risks of cyber attacks, Johnson warned.

He added that increased numbers of teleworkers may expose networks to attacks as well. "If you're going to ask people to work from their home computer," Johnson said, "how reliable is that?"

After the general session, attendees broke off into groups to discuss specific issues. In one group, there was clear agreement that personal needs would trump business needs, especially in the early stages of a pandemic. But eventually, economic issues would catch up -- for instance, to help meet the need for basic supplies. That might mean someone working in IT at a book publisher could be asked to write or modify applications to help the company use its distribution systems for food and medicine instead of books.

Devising strategies for getting people to limit their Internet use would also be an issue. When restrictions are voluntary, "people will step up to the plate; what's mandatory will be resisted," said Bruce Wortmann, IT manager at NJN Public Television and Radio in Trenton, N.J. 

Another message coming out of the forum was that there will be a strong need for cooperation among businesses if a pandemic does occur. That may be a lesson learned from the federal government's failures in quickly responding after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. "By working together, we can make a lot of things happen, and we shouldn't have to rely on the government to make it happen," said Peter Briody, a systems specialist and business continuity coordinator at Cytec Industries Inc. in West Paterson, N.J.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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