Can the Internet handle H1N1?

Internet congestion will be exacerbated by localities which may choose to close schools and these students, confined at home, will likely look to the Internet for entertainment

While sounding a bit like Chicken Little, US Federal government watchdogs today said that the H1N1 pandemic will cause a significant increase in the use of the Internet by students and teleworkers that would create serious network access congestion. Such problems may need to be fixed by government involvement or service providers limiting network access or by asking people to lay off the streaming videos for a while.

Congestion affecting home users is likely to occur because the parts of providers’ DSL, cable, satellite, and other types of networks that provide Internet access from residential neighborhoods are not designed to carry all the potential traffic that users could generate in a particular neighborhood or that all connect to a particular aggregating device, a Government Accountability Office report looking at the impact of a pandemic on the Internet stated.

Internet congestion will be exacerbated by localities which may choose to close schools and these students, confined at home, will likely look to the Internet for entertainment, including downloading or streaming videos, playing online games, and engaging in potential activities that may consume large amounts of network capacity, the GAO stated.

Although predicting that the most severe congestion would occur within residential access networks, a study overseen by the Department of Homeland Security also noted that pandemic-related congestion was possible in other parts of the networks that comprise the Internet, the GAO stated. DHS is responsible for ensuring that critical telecommunications infrastructure stays up and running during periods of national duress.

For example, users could experience congestion at peering points where traffic is transferred between service providers because of potential differences in transmission capacity. Additionally, teleworkers connecting to their enterprise networks could overload various components of these networks, such as firewalls or servers that provide access to various applications because some businesses’ networks may not have scaled these devices to accommodate the anticipated increase in telecommuting traffic during a pandemic, the GAO stated.

Can service providers ease the pain? Maybe. Providers’ options for addressing expected pandemic-related Internet congestion include providing extra capacity, using network management controls, installing direct lines to organizations, temporarily reducing the maximum transmission rate, and shutting down some Internet sites. Each of these methods is limited either by technical difficulties or questions of authority, the GAO stated.

Providers said they would focus on ensuring services for the federal government priority communication programs and performing network management techniques to re-route traffic around congested areas in regional networks or the national backbone. However, these activities would likely not relieve congestion in the residential Internet access networks, the GAO stated.

In the current network environment, providers’ capability to address pandemic-related Internet congestion by prioritizing certain users’ traffic, including that of financial sector teleworkers, is limited. Although providers cannot identify users at the computer level to manage traffic from that point, two providers told the GAO that if the residential Internet access network in a particular neighborhood was experiencing congestion, a provider could attempt to reduce congestion by reducing the amount of traffic that each user could send to and receive from his or her network. Such a reduction would require adjusting the configuration file within each customer’s modem to temporarily reduce the maximum transmission speed that that modem was capable of performing—for example, by reducing its incoming capability from 7 Mbps to 1 Mbps.

However, according to providers the GAO spoke with for its report, such reductions could violate the agreed-upon customer service levels for which customers have paid. In the end the GAO said that technically feasible options would likely require a government directive.

Some of the GAO’s other conclusions included:

• Voluntary actions taken by the general public could have significant potential to reduce the surges in traffic loads that residential users may experience during a pandemic. For example, the general public could be asked to limit video streaming, gaming, and peer-to-peer and other bandwidth-intensive applications during daytime work hours.

• Shutting down specific Internet sites would also reduce congestion, although the GAO said many industry players expressed concerns about the feasibility of such an approach. Overall Internet congestion could be reduced if Web sites that accounted for significant amounts of traffic—such as those with video streaming—were shut down during a pandemic.

• Providers could help reduce the potential for a pandemic to cause Internet congestion by ongoing expansions of their networks’ capacities. Some providers are upgrading their networks by moving to higher capacity modems or fiber-to-the-home systems. For example, some cable providers are introducing a network specification that will increase the down load capacity of residential networks from the 38 Mbps to about 152 to 155 Mbps.

• Until DHS develops an effective response strategy, coordinates with federal and other partners on actions to take, determines whether sufficient authorities to act exist or are sought, and evaluates the need for a public campaign, employees in critical sectors of the nation’s economy, including those in financial services, might not be able to effectively telework or otherwise communicate or transmit data over the Internet during a pandemic.

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