GAO: Flu pandemic could flood Internet with traffic, causing networks to buckle

“Given the importance of the Internet infrastructure to our nation’s communications and commerce, we suggested that Congress consider clarifying the legal framework guiding Internet recovery,” GAO said. “While a pandemic will not directly damage physical infrastructure such as power lines or computer systems, it could threaten critical systems by potentially removing the essential personnel needed to operate them from the workplace for weeks or months.”

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Like in other emergencies, such as national disasters or terrorist attacks, maintaining some sort of access to the Internet during a flu outbreak is increasingly important. But the GAO says a flu emergency presents unique challenges because outbreaks would likely come in waves and sick workers and students will be placing prolonged stress on the network as they try to stay in touch with their bosses and teachers.

Federal Computer Week has a very detailed explanation of how a flu pandemic will affect the Internet's operation. In metropolitan suburbs, for example, an emergency situation could cause demand to exceed the capacity of Internet service providers’ network infrastructure. That's because networks are not designed to carry 100 percent of the potential traffic users could generate all at once, since all subscribers are rarely online at the same time. But if most people are working from home, the networks can easily be overwhelmed and buckle under the extreme demand.

The GAO recommended that DHS, for example, "work with other federal partners to determine if sufficient authority exists for one or more relevant agencies to take any contemplated actions to address Internet congestion."