Breaking the Internet

As if the usual H1N1 fearmongering hasn’t been enough, now US government officials are apparently warning that:

 “The Internet in that country could actually break if an H1N1 flu pandemic forced millions to telecommute from home, a finding that has implications for Canada, because the continent’s telecommunications backbones are so closely connected.

(Someone made a similar comment when Michael Jackson died, that the massive rush of people to the verify the reports broke the Internet. Pfft.)

“But while the Internet “pipes” are built big enough around office towers or large post-secondary campuses to handle Internet use during a normal workday, the Internet infrastructure that services most residential neighbourhoods is not designed for the kind of intensive use typical of most workplaces, said the GAO.”

Which begs the question, “What kind of work are these people doing that there is “intensive” work-related Internet use?” In most offices I’ve worked in, usage is highly localized (local networks and Intranets primarily) — the amount of external Internet traffic would be primarily people surfing YouTube and checking Facebook and reading their personal email.

Let’s face it — if there really is a massive H1N1 pandemic to rival the 1918 Spanish Flu, most people will be either laid low by the virus itself or kept too busy caring for their sick family members to be hanging out on the Internet more than they normally would. And the Internet doesn’t really have a single breaking point. It isn’t a case of one server, one router going down and byebye InterWebs. Any bandwidth problems are likely to be localized and primarily affect people sending and receiving large files, streaming video/audio, hitting the same sites at the same time as the rest of the planet (hello Twitter slow down as people decide to share their flu experiences with the world or government health sites kacking as people panic about death-by-flu),  or using a VPN. (Our company VPN is slower than molasses on a good day.) Most people I know who telecommute work primarily on their local machines and access the Internet (for work purposes) mostly for email or research or FTP. (Yesterday, for example, I worked from home. I accessed the Internet primarily for work-related chat, email, and to access our VPN. Fairly typical and fairly minimal Internet usage. On the other hand, on my days off, you’re likely to see me watching marathons of my favourite TV shows on YouTube or uploading/downloading large files as I work on the sites that I’m working on or downloading podcasts. In short, much higher Internet traffic.)

The bigger problem IMO would be companies or government agencies being able to provide adequate service coverage if half (or more) of their workforce is sick or telecommuting. It’s a concern every year — if your office is anything like mine, the plague does the rounds every year, sometimes a couple of times a year, wiping out half the office. Forget the Internet breaking — I’d be more concerned that stores might not be able to open.

Interesting flu-related site to check out:

Google Flu Trends
It “provides near real-time estimates of flu activity for a number of countries and regions around the world [including Canada] based on aggregated search queries.” Judging by the map, Canadians are currently the ones most intensely querying about the flu. (According to the actual data, more Canadians than anyone else in the world, including the US, were searching on flu-related terms in the last couple of weeks. )

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