The U.S. Government Accountability Office yesterday released a report outlining the effect that a swine flu epidemic might have on our broadband infrastructure. It appears to be an effort to goad the Department of Homeland Security to come up with some way to ensure that the Internet keeps functioning for essential communications and financial transactions if a large chunk of the country calls in sick or is ordered to stay home. Turns out that H1N1-related illness will lead to network congestion, according to the hysterical report out from the government watchdog agency.
The agency interviewed ISPs and used previous studies to determine that in case of a pandemic with more than 40 percent of office workers and students home surfing the web, our networks would be inconveniently slow without government intervention. The worry is that this congestion would affect the ability of financial markets to function if certain employees couldn’t telework, as well as reduce productivity in other critical components of the national economy. Since building out new network capacity on the fly isn’t realistic, the report suggests that providers could slow traffic to residential homes or limit access to bandwidth-intense sites, such as those that stream video.
The report acknowledges that both of these would be both unpopular and difficult (if not illegal) to implement, and suggests that the populace could voluntarily avoid hitting Hulu and YouTube in case of mass illness, or that the Department of Homeland Security could work with site owners to turn off their streaming applications. It then admits that this would make the search for news related to the pandemic a bit harder to find.
Basically, the report states the obvious in laying out that a shared last-mile infrastructure such as a cable or DSL network would face a lot of stress if everyone were at home using it, and tells DHS that it should do something about it. Unsurprisingly, the agency tries to back away from such a Herculean task, but the report is a nice illustration of what we have been trying to hammer home for a while — broadband is an essential service that is only going to be more important over time.