Swine Flu Might Sicken the Net

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As the dreaded word "pandemic" tops this week's headlines about the swine flu virus spreading around the globe, many businesses are dusting off emergency plans for employees to work from home and schools are poised to send students home. If this turns out to be a full-fledged pandemic, not only will people fall ill, the Internet will too. Businesses think that "continuity" will be achieved with collaboration and online workflow procedures, while schools think that "education" will proceed via Edline assignments and online homework delivery. To protect a pay check many employees will attempt to comply but fewer students will be motivated. With employees using their residential Internet connections to keep businesses running while competing with masses of youngsters turning to the Internet to assuage their boredom, we predict the loads on local access networks will exceed capacity, slowing performance to all.

The gridlock will be comparable to what would happen to the roads on Peter's home turf in Virginia if there were no hurricane evacuation support mechanisms in place. No one would be able to get out of town. To prevent gridlock and enable an orderly evacuation, civil emergency plans kick in and physical barriers are lowered to open all four lanes of Interstate 64 to westbound traffic only when a hurricane threatens to blow through eastern Virginia. Without this plan consequences would be dire. Unfortunately a comparable plan does not exist for the Internet, making Internet gridlock inevitable.

All that can be done is to disseminate public service announcements encouraging people to curb non-essential Internet use. You try convincing a bored teenage that accessing Facebook or downloading YouTube videos is not essential to life! The fact is that grounding huge numbers of people will create a tremendous amount of traffic that will overwhelm local access networks--and there are no mechanisms in place to prevent the resulting gridlock.

What should be done? In the short term all that can be done is to encourage people to behave to promote the common good. The Internet, as we have pointed out before is a shared resource, and as such it is a commons. Studies of the use of commons show that peer pressure works to protect a commons from overuse. But that assumes you can see your neighbor's behavior and make him or her feel community pressure to get into line. When it comes to the Internet, however, we can't see our neighbors' behavior (which is a good thing in a free society), so we can't know if they are behaving responsibly or not. There is no strong mechanism to encourage, much less compel people to do the right thing.

The Internet user community and the US government have made it verboten for ISPs to implement management techniques that might be helpful in emergencies--for fear that during non-emergencies they might use these capabilities in their own self interest to price gouge or manipulate the market to their benefit. So who can manage the traffic for the common good? It looks to us like just as the government steps in to regulate traffic on I64 when a hurricane is about to hit the Virginia coast, the government needs to manage the Internet in an emergency like it does the telephone and radio networks.

It will be interesting to watch how this emergency and the next ones play themselves out on the Internet. If, as we predict, the US government plays a role, we foresee several forces that will shape the plan. The FCC has made it clear that it does not want ISPs managing traffic. We suspect that there is a group within Homeland Security that would love to manage traffic. Is our hunch correct that such a group exists? If so, does it talk to the FCC? Developing and implementing a coordinated plan that satisfies public safety organizations, regulators, net neutrality proponents, business groups, and consumer advocates will take years. In the mean time we will all be getting news and emergency instructions on the crisis from old fashioned technologies like radio and television--rather than the Internet.

Let us hope that this scare passes quickly with minimal suffering but wakes up the parties who need to cooperate for a realistic solution in time for the really big crisis. Ignoring the issue is not an option.

This story, "Swine Flu Might Sicken the Net" was originally published by Network World.

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