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

October 28th, 2009

To be fair, the GAO report is envisioning a dramatic worst-case scenario, where things get so extreme that many infrastructure problems could happen. “U.S. health authorities have estimated that a pandemic similar to the one that occurred in 1918 could sicken millions of people in the United States and potentially cause many deaths. The impact of such an event on various sectors of the U.S. economy could also be significant. In a severe pandemic, governments may close schools, shut down public transportation systems and ban public gatherings such as concerts or sporting events,” the report said. “In such scenarios, many more people than usual may be at home during the day, and Internet use in residential neighborhoods could increase significantly as a result of people seeking news, entertainment or social contact from home computers. Concerns have been raised that this additional traffic could lead to congestion on the Internet that would significantly affect businesses in local neighborhoods, such as small doctors’ offices or business employees attempting to telework by connecting to their employers’ enterprise networks.”

That said, the government doesn’t have any way to deal with such a situation. The report questions whether the government has sufficient legal authority to force bandwidth changes or to shut down sites or other efforts, even in an emergency. Instead, the report speaks of a voluntary effort, which prompts the “Yeah, that’s likely to work well” response.

“Although its own study identified voluntary public reduction of Internet use as an effective means of reducing pandemic congestion, DHS has not begun steps to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of obtaining such public cooperation. According to the DHS study and to providers and others we spoke with, 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. They could also be encouraged to use broadcast news sources in place of online news,” the report said. “A similar campaign developed by another agency—Health and Human Services—to publicize pandemic awareness strategies showed that such public education efforts can require months to prepare and cost millions of dollars to test and implement. For example, as part of creating various radio and television messages to provide information to the public about how to prepare for a pandemic, HHS conducted market research using various techniques, including focus groups, to gauge the public’s opinion about a pandemic.”

This concern seems to be more academic than practical. At this point, E-Commerce execs have more to worry about this season with an ultra-popular toy than with a sneezing student.


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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