Homebound flu victims could stymie Internet


PHILADELPHIA — Like many big organizations, Comcast Corp. is
taking precautions to halt the spread of H1N1 flu. For one, it has distributed
bottles of hand sanitizer to employees.

But Comcast, the nation’s No. 1 residential Internet
provider with 14 million high-speed subscribers, may have a bigger problem on
its hands if the flu leads to rampant absenteeism by the nation’s students and

All those people could be on the Internet at home at the
same time, a recent government report warned.

And that could lead to — Internet meltdown.

Homebound workers and bored teenagers could overload the
Internet with video game downloads and Web surfing and online shopping and
Webcast viewing. Neighborhood telecommunication nodes that act as traffic cops
for the Internet could be overwhelmed with torrents of data.

A Government Accountability Office report, released Oct. 26,
says the Internet could slow dramatically if worker absenteeism reached 40
percent — a reasonable speculation for a severe flu outbreak, the report said.

John Hausknecht, assistant professor of human resources at
Cornell University, said the 40 percent estimate was five to 10 times the
typical absentee rate and one never seen.

The Internet, with many more users home with the flu, could
become so congested that functions critical to the economy, such as online
banking or stock trading, might grind to a halt.

And the government could have trouble disseminating
information about the pandemic itself over the Internet.

“Concerns exist that a more severe pandemic outbreak
than (April) 2009’s could cause large numbers of people staying home to
increase their Internet use and overwhelm Internet providers’ network
capacities,” the report said in summary.

Comcast, which has invested billions of dollars in its
Internet service, says it was aware of the report and has contingency plans.
Spokeswoman Jenni Moyer on Monday would not say what they were.

So far the cable giant hasn’t noticed troubling
Internet-usage spikes, even with recent school closings and student absenteeism
in the Philadelphia area, one of its largest markets.

The company says the flu could infect different areas of the
nation, or regions, at different times. So everybody won’t be on their home
Internet at the same time everywhere.

The government report notes that in an emergency authorities
could seek to shut down video-sharing Web sites to ease Internet congestion.

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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