U.S. Govt. Report: The Flu May Cause E-Commerce Site Outages

Written by Evan Schuman
October 28th, 2009

We’ve heard of viruses threatening computer networks, but the actual flu? As if retailers needed another reason to worry about this year’s holiday season, a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is predicting that the flu could cause major slowdowns and possibly outages with E-Commerce sites due to—we couldn’t make this up—increased bandwidth demand caused by a lot of people staying at home in bed. Specifically, the report is worried about flu-victim telecommuting workers and sneezing children playing online video games sharply increasing bandwidth demands.

“Concerns exist that a more severe pandemic outbreak than 2009’s could cause large numbers of people staying home to increase their Internet use and overwhelm Internet providers’ network capacities. Increased demand during a severe pandemic could exceed the capacities of Internet providers’ access networks for residential users and interfere with teleworkers in the securities market and other sectors,” the report said. “Private Internet providers have limited ability to prioritize traffic or take other actions that could assist critical teleworkers. Some actions, such as reducing customers’ transmission speeds or blocking popular Web sites, could negatively impact E-Commerce and require government authorization. However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not developed a strategy to address potential Internet congestion or worked with federal partners to ensure that sufficient authorities to act exist.”

Somehow, this report just doesn’t add up. The premise comes down to the fact that a sharply increased bandwidth load will disrupt sites. That makes sense, but the argument that homebound workers and students will cause that sharp increase in bandwidth is where this argument falls apart. Isn’t it likely that the homebound workers would simply be downloading and sending the same files they would have at the office, making the overall bandwidth impact a wash? To get nitpicky, we can assume that a flu-infected worker might be downloading less than at the office because the worker would have to spend some of that time dealing with flu-related activities (that seems to be the least graphic way of describing it).

The children downloading files and playing interactive games is a better argument because those millions of students would be creating a demand far greater than they would have had they been at school. But suggesting that it could bring down the Internet seems far-fetched.

Indeed, one of the points in the 77-page GAO report undermines its overall conclusions, namely that flu-fueled congestion would likely be gradual and geographically (and therefore ISP) diverse, as opposed to the concentrated site-specific impact of a denial-of-service attack. It’s a lot easier for sites and ISPs to ramp up to deal with a gradual bandwidth problem than a sudden one.

“An influenza pandemic can occur when an existing virus mutates into a novel strain that is highly transmissible among humans, leading to outbreaks worldwide. Such strains can be highly pathogenic because there is little or no pre-existing immunity in the population. Some of the issues associated with the preparation for and responses to an influenza pandemic are similar to those for any other type of disaster or hazard,” the report said. “However, a pandemic poses some unique challenges. Unlike incidents that are discretely bounded in space or time (e.g., most natural or man-made disasters), an influenza pandemic is an event likely to come in waves, each lasting weeks, months or years, and pass through communities of all sizes across the nation and the world. Although 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.”


5 Comments | Read U.S. Govt. Report: The Flu May Cause E-Commerce Site Outages

  1. Bryan Larkin Says:

    Wow. Where to start?

    1. When I am really sick, I don’t feel like doing much but sleeping. Even watching TV can be tiring. I suspect at least some portion of the population will feel similarly.

    2. When I telecommute, I usually do most of my work on my local PC and occassionally transfer files, send emails, etc. I’m not convinced that telecommuting workers will cause that much of a bandwidth increase. And the emails going to other companies would be going to them regardless – though perhaps they have 2 steps to take instead of one (home PC to corporate server and then to the recipient).

    3. Kids playing games. Yeah, perhaps there will be an increase, but I can see many of them restricted to bed – if their parents are doing their job. Playing video games raises blood pressure, makes kids anxious, and can take lots of energy. That’s a surefire way to delay recovery.

    4. Regardless of other things that I might do, shopping on-line is not something I enjoy when I’m feeling poorly. I could see a decrease in traffic to on-line stores just because people might not feel up to shopping. Thus, the demand for bandwidth to any specific on-line store may be less.

    5. Finally, if there is a great increase in traffic, I would think that the problem will become self-limiting. For instance, if it is taking me a long time to download a file or surf the net, perhaps I’ll just get tired of it and stop using the Internet for now. Likewise, if the lag in an online game gets too great, I’d expect kids to stop playing because they won’t have as much fun as they constantly lose to others who are not experiencing such significant delays. As people choose to stop using the Internet, bandwidth will free up.

    I’m not really sure of the value of this report -but I suspect the money that was spent on it could have been put to better use.

  2. Doug Alder Says:

    the report said. “Private Internet providers have limited ability to prioritize traffic or take other actions that could assist critical teleworkers. Some actions, such as reducing customers’ transmission speeds or blocking popular Web sites, could negatively impact E-Commerce and require government authorization.

    Hmmm… excuse my cynicism but it sounds like someone not in favor of Net Neutrality trying to set up an argument for content filtering etc at the ISP level.

    In any case, as you said the argument falls apart. For one thing there is no shortage of bandwidth available to ISPs. There is a ton of under utilized capacity out there left over from the heyday of a decade ago when everyone and their pet dog was laying fiber everywhere but to where they should have bee – the home. That, however, is as they say another story though.

  3. Tom Says:

    Flu victims will help ecommerce because they will be more likely to shop online to purchase the things they would otherwise be buying at brick-and-mortar stores if they were feeling up to it…

  4. Pandemic is a HOAX! Says:

    Hmmm…sounds like more propaganda from our propaganda ministers. They really want to find a reason, even a very off the wall far fetched reason, to get their mitts on control of the internets. A flimsy argument especially since those adults and kids who are on the internet at home (assuming they are not in bed) will not be on the internet at work and at school. Isn’t this the private business between the ISPs and their customers anyway? Nice try, I just hope the people don’t fall for this con the way some people are falling for the flu hoax.

  5. Jim Says:

    As a parent, I will definitely be doing the majority of my shopping online this year instead of packing into the stores and possibly exposing myself and therefor my children to the flu virus. I don’t think that I am the only one who is thinking like this either.


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