Web use spike in pandemic may make telework tough

Many companies and government agencies are counting on legions of teleworkers to keep their operations running in the event of an influenza pandemic. But those plans may quickly fall apart as millions of people turn to the Internet for news and entertainment, potentially choking online traffic.

Such a surge in usage would almost certainly prompt moves to restrict or prioritise traffic, such as blocking video transmissions, according to business continuity planners who attended a pandemic forum at a SunGard Data Systems Inc. hot-site facility in northern New Jersey this month.

Both businesses and home users likely would be asked to restrict high-bandwidth transmissions, the planners said. And if that didn’t work, they warned, government action might well follow.

“Is there a need for a YouTube during a national emergency?” asked John Thomas, vice president of enterprise systems at a large New York-based financial institution that he asked not be identified.

Businesses and government agencies could cope with traffic surges on their networks by using redundant communications systems and techniques such as diverse routing. But that might not help teleworkers or customers and business partners trying to access systems remotely.

“I think it’s definitely the most vulnerable part of the equation,” said Bernard O’Neill, vice president and chief network officer at Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark, N.J.

Companies with an eye on the bottom line may balk at paying telecommunications service providers for dedicated lines and other business-class capabilities in preparation for a problem that may never occur.

But waiting could be a risky strategy. For instance, if the World Health Organisation raises its pandemic threat alert from the current level of Stage 3 on its six-stage scale, demand for backup communications services could outstrip vendors’ ability to provide them, said forum participants.

For pandemic planners, nothing can be taken for granted. Elizabeth Byrnes, a continuity planner at AT&T Inc., was asked how the telecom company would handle a hurricane or another secondary problem if one were to occur during a pandemic. Byrnes said the issue has received consideration within AT&T.

Byrnes said AT&T would be able to meet its customer service-level agreements in a pandemic but acknowledged that there are unknowns. For instance, the company has identified critical employees who would be asked to come into the office during a pandemic, she said. But there’s no way of knowing in advance how people will react. “Will they come in? I don’t know,” Byrnes said.

A pandemic could also threaten the Internet and corporate networks in other ways. George Johnson, founder and chief technology officer at The ESP Group LLC, an application service provider in Arlington, Va., said that increased numbers of teleworkers may expose networks to security risks. “If you’re going to ask people to work from their home computer,” Johnson said, “how reliable is that?”

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