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

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?

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