What happens to the internet if there’s a viral pandemic?

Paul Raven @ 29-10-2009

Map of the internetOur beloved internet could suffer badly at the hands of a pandemic virus. And not just computer viruses, either: a pandemic attack of an illness like swine flu might have knock-on effects in the digital domain, and the US General Accountability Office isn’t pleased that no one appears to making any contingency plans [via SlashDot]:

… the Homeland Security Department accused the GAO of having unrealistic expectations of how the Internet could be managed if millions began to telework from home at the same time as bored or sick schoolchildren were playing online, sucking up valuable bandwidth.

Experts have for years pointed to the potential problem of Internet access during a severe pandemic, which would be a unique kind of emergency. It would be global, affecting many areas at once, and would last for weeks or months, unlike a disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake.

H1N1 swine flu has been declared a pandemic but is considered a moderate one. Health experts say a worse one — or a worsening of this one — could result in 40 percent absentee rates at work and school at any given time and closed offices, transportation links and other gathering places.

And what do you do if you’re stuck home from work or school under house quarantine? You fire up your computer and mess around on the internet (unless that’s just me), meaning a severe pandemic will cause a serious uptick in bandwidth demand, potentially slowing down essential infrastructure systems at the same time. [image by matthewjethall]

In a rare display of pragmatism, Homeland Security has told the GAO that there’s not really much it can do to prepare for this sort of eventuality – despite theories to the contrary, the internet is not a series of tubes. Commercial ISPs are unlikely to be keen on being told to lock down the connections of their customers, either.

Homeland Security might well have spent a moment to think about the psyops angle of such a move, as even the positive practical results of restricting consumer bandwidth might be seriously outweighed by the psychological negatives. Ill internet habitués might break quarantine to go to locations where the connection was faster; the state of fear and paranoia that attends a serious pandemic might be amplified by the perceived restriction of information channels (“what are they trying to hide?”)… having technological impossibility as a scapegoat is probably something of a relief.

The good news, however, is that most of the major securities exchanges and financial institutions have their own private networks that don’t rely on publicly-available bandwidth, so we can rest easy in the knowledge that, even when we’re stuck at home sweating out a nasty virus without so much as a bit-rate that’ll let us peer at Fark every ten minutes, greedy shysters in expensive suits will still be able to skim the cream from the global misery without any inconvenience.

Frankly, I’m not sure that the issues would be as big as is being suggested; schools and businesses surely contribute significantly toward bandwidth consumption during the daytime, so there’d be some slack to take up thanks to absenteeism. The whole thing has a slight smell of Millennium Bug about it, at least for me; if there’s a networking expert in the audience, I’d appreciate being set straight on the details.

And while we’re talking about the internet, good old DARPA – who invented the thing in the first place – are trying to work out how to extend it into orbit and link up our swarm of satellites to their own broadband connections. That’s easy enough (though still slow) when you can set up a persistent link from ground to orbit with a geostationary platform, but not so simple for sats that move relative to the Earth’s surface. If you’ve got an idea of how to get around the problem, DARPA would like to hear from you before 5th November…

… but in the meantime, would anyone like to open a book on how soon a military or commercial satellite will be hacked over its own broadband connection?


Internet to be an "unreliable toy" by 2012?

Edward Willett @ 01-05-2009

800px-Network_switches That’s the prediction of Nemertes Research, which will be publishing a report later this year warning that the Web has reached a critical point that could lead first to computers being disrupted and going offline for several minutes in a time, and eventually regular brownouts that will slow and even freeze their computers. (Times Online via KurzweilAI.net.)

The primary culprit is burgeoning demand for high-bandwidth video: the report notes that the amount of traffic generated each month by YouTube is now equivalent to the amount of traffic generated across the entire Internet in all of 2000, and new video applications such as BBC iPlayer, which allows viewers to watch high-def TV on their computers. (And I guess by providing links to those sites I’m contributing to the problem!)

Monthly traffic across the Internet is currently running at about eight exabytes (an exabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes), and a recent study at the University of Minnesota estimates its growing by at least 60 percent a year–and that study didn’t take into account growing demand in China and India.

Engineers are struggling to stay ahead of demand, and find other ways to deal with impending deadlock (such as the LHC Computing Grid, a parallel network designed to handle the massive amounts of data the Large Hadron Collider will produce), but it may be impossible.

In other words, we may be living in the Golden Age of the Internet. But if it all crumbles around us, at least we’ll have something to tell the grandchildren.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]computers,Internet,bandwidth,communications,Web[/tags]


Lag

Sarah Ennals @ 26-04-2009

Lag - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]


Economics2.0 – bandwidth as currency?

Paul Raven @ 30-08-2007

Ad-hoc wireless networkThe planned launch in January 2008 of Tribler, a variation on the BitTorrent protocol, is being hailed by the software’s creators as a way of sharing the burden of peer-to-peer networks more fairly, by treating bandwidth as a commodity to be traded on a global market. Which sounds great to me, especially as it’s open source … but isn’t it somewhat inevitable that someone will make a hacked version with the altruism overridden?

But leeching is hardly a new phenomenon, and by and large the web’s development as a resource for the average user can be largely ascribed to altruistic behavior by participants – Victor Keegan at The Guardian thinks the gift economy of the web actually promotes overall economic welfare. I’m inclined to agree, but I can think of a few counter-examples – how about you? [Image by Peter Kaminski]