If a bird flu pandemic sweeps the nation, we could avoid infection by working from home via the Internet.
Or, hammered by overuse, the Internet could shut down within two to four days of an outbreak, eliminating telecommuting as a viable option.
Disturbingly, that was one finding of a simulation, or war game, held in January in Davos, Switzerland, by the World Economic Forum and management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. More than 30 senior industry and governmental executives played out the arrival of the flu in Germany from Eastern Europe -- and the results weren't pretty.
"We assumed total absentees of 30 percent to 60 percent trying to work from home, which would have overwhelmed the Internet," said participant Bill Thoet, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton. "We did not assume that the backbone would be gone, but that the edge of the network, where everyone was trying to access their office from home, would be overwhelmed. The absence of maintenance was also a factor. The person who brought up the problem was himself a CEO of an Internet service provider.
"The conclusion [of imminent collapse] was not absolute, and the situation was not digitally simulated, but the idea of everyone working from home appears untenable," Thoet said.
On this side of the Atlantic, predictions about how the Internet would fare in the face of a pandemic are less dire.
"We don't believe that the Internet will be compromised within a matter of hours or days," said Brent Woodworth, worldwide manager for IBM's Crisis Response Team, which does consulting on disaster preparedness. "Most Internet traffic is reroutable, and as different areas are affected at different rates by a pandemic, the networks could anticipate increased traffic and adjust accordingly -- with the caveat that critical components will be maintained."
Besides, mass telecommuting in the face of a pandemic would just accelerate a trend that has been under way for a decade, said Verizon Communications Inc. spokesman Mark Marchand in Basking Ridge, N.J. Voice and data traffic have both been shifting to the suburbs, and the carriers have been re-engineering their networks to follow it, he said. Marchand referred to the strike of the New York City transit workers just before Christmas last year (see "IT aids New Yorkers during transit strike") . "A lot of people worked from home and the network handled it," he recalled.
"If we were having this conversation 10 years ago, I would have had to say that mass telecommuting was not an option," he added. "But remember, we just handle access -- after you get on the Internet, that's another question."
Within the Internet, there could indeed be problems, agreed Paul Froutan, vice president of research and development at Rackspace Managed Hosting Ltd., a large Web-hosting company in San Antonio. "A large company has large amounts of data traffic that never leaves the office," he noted. "If you send people home to do the same work remotely, that could cause a problem."
But he doesn't foresee the Internet collapsing from overuse, if only because frustrated users won't bother pushing it to the brink.
"You can see the Internet as a self-regulating supply-and-demand mechanism," Froutan said. "The more people use it, the slower it gets, so the less people use it. If 10,000 people go to a site that normally supports 100 users, 9,000 will give up, while the other thousand will get very slow connectivity but will keep going until they get the job done."
At some point, people who need the Internet will start working after midnight, when there's less traffic, he predicted, and corporations will start paying premiums to the carriers to make sure their traffic gets through.
"If the problem persists long term, the carriers may drop some customers in order to service the ones that pay extra, and we will be left with a patchwork of private Internets," Froutan added.
"A pandemic will not bring down the Internet the least little bit, but there will be local problems," said Eric Paulak, an analyst at Gartner Corporations that plan to rely on telecommuting should act now, before an emergency, to reserve sufficient inbound bandwidth, he said.
"If you have a third of your people working from home, you will see your bandwidth requirements tripling," Paulak said, noting that a virtual private network will take about 250Kbit/sec. per user. Rather than pay upfront for the tripling, he suggested getting "shadow service," with reserved bandwidth that costs about 25 percent of a live connection. There are also burstable connections, where the rated connection speed represents the maximum or burst speed and the user pays only for what is actually used.
Taking an inventory of what Internet connections are available to potential telecommuters would also be a good idea now, he advised.
Dire predictions about the Internet's fate did not surface during a U.S. version of the Davos simulation that was held in March in Washington under the auspices of Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Health Transformation, a group founded by former House speaker Newt Gingrich that supports using IT to improve health care and reduce costs.
Robert Egge, project manager at the center, said there were telecommunications industry participants in the exercise, but the question of Internet survivability was not addressed in detail and no specific predictions were made. However, "the exercise was less about making predictions than about talking to each other about the different challenges that a pandemic would present," he explained.
Actually, if any of the other predictions that arose from the Davos simulation bear out, the fate of the Internet may be the least of anyone's worries. The war game indicated that by the 28th day of a pandemic, the social infrastructure would have disappeared and governments would have to declare martial law to maintain basic services. To that end, they would probably end up conscripting those who had caught the flu and survived, since those people would continue to be around.
Hopefully, you'll read about it on the Internet.