Govt Report: Swine Flu Will Crush The Internet

While most people have been worrying about the obvious effects of an H1N1 epidemic — you know, stuff like people dying, vaccine shortages, overcrowded hospitals, that kind of thing — the Government Accountability Office has identified a terrifying new threat linked to the flu: It will bring the Internet to its knees, as millions of bedridden patients spend all of their idle hours online.

According to a report by the oversight agency:

Concerns exist that a more severe pandemic outbreak than 2009’s could cause large numbers of people staying home to increase their Internet use and overwhelm Internet providers’ network capacities. Increased demand during a severe pandemic could exceed the capacities of Internet providers’ access networks for residential users and interfere with teleworkers in the securities market and other sectors.

The 77-page report recommends that one effective way to deal with the coming flu-driven Internet meltdown would be “voluntary public reduction of Internet use,” including asking those sick, bored, bedridden patients to “limit video streaming, gaming and peer-to-peer and other bandwidth-intensive applications during daytime work hours.”

While we’re sure the GAO is simply trying to avoid any serious flu-related infrastructure crises, we’re with StorefrontBacktalk on this one. As that site recently said:

Somehow, this report just doesn’t add up. The premise comes down to the fact that a sharply increased bandwidth load will disrupt sites. That makes sense, but the argument that homebound workers and students will cause that sharp increase in bandwidth is where this argument falls apart. Isn’t it likely that the homebound workers would simply be downloading and sending the same files they would have at the office, making the overall bandwidth impact a wash? To get nitpicky, we can assume that a flu-infected worker might be downloading less than at the office because the worker would have to spend some of that time dealing with flu-related activities (that seems to be the least graphic way of describing it).

There is one way we’re willing to accept the report’s recommendations, however. As of now, we’re cutting out one bandwidth-intensive activity: Downloading 77-page government reports about the flu’s effect on Internet usage.

U.S. Govt. Report: The Flu May Cause E-Commerce Site Outages [Storefront Backtalk]
Influenza Pandemic: Key Securities Market Participants Are Making Progress, but Agencies Could Do More to Address Potential Internet Congestion and Encourage Readiness [GAO]

(Photo: Laptop Laidback)


Edit Your Comment

  1. jik says:

    StorefrontBacktalk is confused.

    As the GAO report makes clear in the excerpt above, the issue is with the capacity of the ISPs’ access networks, not with the capacity of the internet in general.

    The ISPs maintain enough capacity on their access networks to adequately handle a load which is not much higher than the load their networks are actually handling (and, for the bad ISPs, is actually lower than the load they’re actually handling, during peak usage). If home usage spikes, then these access networks will be overwhelmed, and people’s Internet experience at home will go to hell.

    Furthermore, people sick at home probably aren’t going to be doing work. They’re going to be looking for ways to occupy time, and on the Internet, some of the most common ways to occupy time are “video streaming, gaming and peer-to-peer and other bandwidth-intensive applications.” So someone sick and on the Internet at home is probably going to use more bandwidth than they would at work.

    • QuantumRiff says:

      @jik: How is the ISP’s bandwith problems going to be any different than what they have in the Evenings, when most people are home? In fact, instead of doing all their internet surfing between the normal hours of 6pm to 9pm that are the most busy at most ISP’s, your going to see people using slightly more traffic, but spread out from 10am to 9pm…

      • Rachacha says:
      • Rachacha says:

        @QuantumRiff: Sorry about the blank post…don’t know what happened. To answer your question. When most people are working from home they are doing casual E-mail or casual web surfing. Some users will be downloading content or movies from the internet as well. Most of the content is download content.

        If you have a significant part of the workforce working from home, they will be transmitting and receiving data to servers at work, connecting via VPN to their employer’s network to access databases and resources that are only on the company LAN, and they will be using remote desktop applications like GoToMyPC or LogMeIn. VPN and remote desktop and web mail applications place more strain on a public network and use more upload data than casual “evening” surfing. How? Lets look at 2 examples of me sending you an E-mail.

        Example 1: We are both at our offices.
        I send an E-mail to you using my corporate E-mail program.
        That E-mail is transmitted from my computer to my corporate E-mail server via a LAN.
        The E-mail server sends that E-mail to your corporate E-mail server over the public network.
        Your corporate E-mail server sends the E-mail to your desktop via your corporate LAN
        You receive the E-mail

        Example 2: We are both Tele-working from our home
        I send an E-mail to you from home.
        That E-mail is transmitted from my home computer via the public network to my company server.
        The E-mail server sends that E-mail to your corporate E-mail server over the public network.
        Your corporate E-mail server sends the E-mail to your desktop at home via the public network
        You receive the E-mail.

        In the first example, only the server to server communication was transmitted over the public network. In the second example, the same piece of data was transmitted three times over the public network.

  2. B says:

    What about all the time I spend on the internet at work, though? Won’t it just be a wash for most of us?

    • kamel5547 says:

      @B: Maybe for you… we block many of the more popular bandwidth intensive sites (YouTube, Facebook, etc). We also have policies that prohibit streaming video/audio not related to work (and mostly people do not do it with a few exceptions).

      Also a lot of our traffic (e-mail, corporate applications) goes over WAN lines that are dedicated to our company, that bandwidth is permanently tied up and thus someone from hoem performing the same activity (say if they decided to get some work done) would increase the total bandwidth usuage.

      All in all I agree that bandwidth usuage for a person at home probably increases, however there will probably be mitgating factors and it will not be as bad as the GAO is claiming.

    • Rectilinear Propagation says:

      @B: Does ‘most of us’ mean Consumerists or people in general? Because a lot of people rarely or never use a computer at work. Nurses & food service people for example are people who definitely have to go home if sick and might be using the Internet more at home.

  3. dulcinea47 says:

    Yeah, dumb. If I’m at work I’m online pretty much 100% of the time be it for work or non-work related activity. If I’m home sick I’m likely to be, I dunno, sleeping, lying around feeling crappy, stuff like that. I guess I might watch a movie online but for the most part if I’m really sick I don’t feel like looking at the computer.

    • yagisencho says:



      The last time I was down with the flu, I was in bed for four days straight, drifting in and out of consciousness and fever-driven dreams. No computer, no tv, no nothing.

  4. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    All those people home sick from the flu will be puking or taking care of kids puking!
    Storefrontbacktalk was way too polite in its description of its disagreement on the GAO report.

  5. ThinkerTDM says:

    The solution: give the ISP’s even more money- to “upgrade” infrastructure. Those poor ISP’s!

  6. Naame says:

    I smell a rat. If such a thing would really clog the tubes so much to the point where it is even worth mentioning then why are we not seeing the same warnings during holidays and summer times where more people are off of work/school and able to more easily access the internet?

    Also, I think it is quite a coincidence that a report like this one comes out while net neutrality is in the spot light.

  7. AnthonyC says:

    The question isn’t whether internet use will be higher during the day if people are home, it is whether is will be higher than today’s peak times. This seems unlikely, since peak times already correspond to when everyone is home, whereas any increase in flu will mean only a fraction of otherwise working people are home.

  8. pb5000 says:

    I just had the swine flu last week. I laid in bed and did not want to do a damn thing.

  9. Colonel Jack O'Neill says:

    This is BS.
    When I’m sick, I don’t feel like doing anything, I just put on the TV, and fall asleep while it’s on. I’m not even thinking about going online.

    Another thing, people need to stop calling it a pandemic, it’s not a pandemic. More people die from the regular flu every year then from the swine flu.

    • ratnerstar says:

      @Colonel Jack O’Neill: I love the unspoken assumption, made here and repeatedly above, that everyone has the same circumstances. “I don’t go online when I’m sick, so no one else will either!” “I use the Internet all the time at work, so everyone else must too!”

      Also, the term “pandemic” has a meaning which has nothing to do with how many people die from it compared to seasonal flu. Personally, I’ll take the word of the World Health Organization: []

  10. TVarmy says:

    So, those of us who browse the internet at work are actually helping to load-balance the internet?

  11. Hooray4Zoidberg says:

    I was sick a few weeks ago and I blew through 2 seasons of Dexter in a 3 day period via Netflix instant play. I don’t think I brought down teh internets. Did anyone notice?

  12. friendlynerd says:

    The overall use may not go up much, but it would be a shift of ISPs. Do you use a T-1 or better at work? Probably. Do you use one at home? No.

    I imagine you’d see T-1 data go down somewhat, and DSL/Cable/Fios go way up.

    • AustinTXProgrammer says:

      @friendlynerd: At our office we have a measly T1, it handles our teleworkers. We use a commercial cable modem (same thing people use at homes, but they don’t get annoyed with us for 90% utilization for an extended period of time) for all the employee internet access. Why? Because T1’s are from the 90’s and are TOO SLOW!!!! T1’s suck, DSL and cable are MUCH faster!

      The real load increase will come from telecommuters. Instead of pulling today’s metrics over the LAN, it now has to go over the public Internet. As for people watching movies, that could be a concern, but I doubt it would be enough to cause any problem.

  13. MostlyHarmless says:

    You hear that subtlefrog? No more twittering-as-IM for you.

  14. UGAdawg says:

    This doesn’t make sense. What happens on the weekends when most are home using the internet. Nothing. It doesn’t crash. Wouldn’t that mimic the same amount of traffic via home ISP’s if people were all home due to illness? If people aren’t on the internet at work then aren’t they on it at home. Also aren’t there people that only access the internet at work and not at home because they either don’t want to pay or they can’t get high speed internet access where they are? If they don’t have access to high speed internet won’t they be relegated to using dial up speeds? I’m just posing some questions that make me suspicious about the report.

  15. montusama says:

    Dear all sick and healthy people. Please use 100% of your internet connection.

    Thank you.

  16. Duke_Newcombe-Making children and adults as fat as pigs says:

    This makes perfect sense, as I never frivolously surf high-bandwidth sites when I’m well and at work…wait, what?

  17. shepd says:

    Hey, at least you can take over Canada when this happens, since we’re running out of the vaccine we’ll be extra easy to invade. :D

    But there will be 3,000 people who paid $2,000 to be vaccinated early and actually able to fight, so don’t think we’ll go down without some sort of a fight.

  18. lunarworks says:

    Oh no! I wonder how they’ll ever handle summer vacation!

  19. Atticka says:

    As opposed to the flood of traffic every day when users get home from work? Instead I see this traffic getting evenly spread out over the day instead of everyone catching up at 6PM (some of us actually work during the day!).

  20. stanhubrio says:

    If Michael Jackson didn’t kill the Internet, swine flu certainly won’t.

  21. proskills says:

    Dear government,

    Please learn something about the internet before posting such frivolous reports.

    Thank you,
    Your constituents.

  22. 2 replies says:

    This from the same government that put a guy that believes “the internet is a series of tubes” in charge of regulating it.

    How about we put those that actually understand the technology in charge of it for once?

    • Rachacha says:

      @2 replies by: Actually no, the American public put the guy who believes “the internet is a series of tubes” in charge of regulating it…the U.S. Government had nothing to do with him getting hired.

  23. ConsumerPop says:

    Are we back in the year 1995 where if everyone goes online at once we’ll break the internet? Yeesh…

  24. Fineous K. Douchenstein says:

    This is a garbage report anyway. I don’t know anyone who would actually want to do anything but lay in bed asleep while sporting a fever of 102+.

  25. hi says:

    They just want you to think the internet is being overwhelled while they set up their check points and manditory vaccinations and limit the proof that the whole thing is a lie.

    Comply to the new world order. We are here to protect you. We are here to save you from yourselves. There is no world government. There is no international currency. The new world order does not exist. Take your vaccines. Drink your floride water. Do not think. Stay medicated. Stay docile.

    The revolution is being televised as a blockbuster documentary explodes onto the Internet, unlocking minds and dismantling the elite’s conspiracy to exploit the financial crisis to finalize their global government takeover.


  26. jik says:

    Those of you who are claiming that the GAO’s scenario won’t happen because people who have the swine flu will be too sick to spend time on-line seem to be missing several important facts:

    1. Just as seasonal flu impacts different people in different ways, swine flu impacts different people in different ways. Not everyone who gets the swine flu is so incapacitated that they can’t even sit up in bed with their laptop and surf Hulu and YouTube.

    2. Even if you are that sick in the middle of your case of the swine flu, there will be at least one day at the end, and quite possibly several days, where you have recovered enough to be able to goof around on-line but are still contagious and shouldn’t be out in public infecting other people.

    3. If the outbreak in this country gets bad enough, then companies will start shutting down and telling their employees to stay home. This will put a whole bunch of completely healthy people at home, fooling around on the Internet all day.

    4. If the outbreak gets even worse, the government may very well tell *everyone* to stay home, which will put even more completely healthy people at home, fooling around on the Internet all day.

    To the people who think the swine flu and this GAO report are all part of some vast conspiracy: I suppose it’s not surprising that people like you are attracted to Web sites like The Consumerist. Does your tin-foil hat chafe much?

    The people who claim that the swine flu outbreak isn’t a pandemic remind me of an otherwise completely rational coworker of mind who insisted, just before the economy crashed last year, that we were not in a recession and that the government wasn’t going to have to bail anyone else out. When I pointed out to him that Alan Greenspan himself had admitted we were in a recession, rather than admitting that Greenspan was more likely than my coworker to know a recession when he saw one, he claimed that Greenspan was senile. I am reminded of this because I would tend to trust the WHO about whether there is a swine flu pandemic more than I would tend to trust anonymous, wacko, conspiracy theorists on the Internet.

    To the people who are saying things like, “Why is this different from nights / weekends / summer vacation? Isn’t everybody home using the Internet then?”: No, everyone is *not* home using the Internet then. They’re eating meals, going on vacations, going shopping, going out on dates, going out to bars, going to ball games, etc., etc. You don’t make plans to do stuff when you or someone for whom you’re caring has the swine flu. What you do, rather, is sit around doing nothing or watch Internet movies and play WoW.

    • proskills says:


      In response to this: “To the people who think the swine flu and this GAO report are all part of some vast conspiracy: I suppose it’s not surprising that people like you are attracted to Web sites like The Consumerist. Does your tin-foil hat chafe much?”

      I am not a conspirator, nor a crazy person that wears a tin foil hat to prevent mind control. I am simply an IT professional that disagrees with the government’s assumption that home users can destroy the internet. There are very simple things that can be done, like capping throughput to end users which easily averts this problem. The only problems this could cause are with said sites: youtube and hulu. These company’s servers could crash from overload, but it’s very unlikely that the current backbone infrastructure of the internet is going to crumble to the ground from millions of extra people watching youtube videos.

  27. admiral_stabbin says:

    I’m personally very concerned about the following, “…interfere with teleworkers in the securities market and other sectors.”

    So, if the Internets are overloaded…people sitting at home losing my retirement bucks won’t be able to lose them?

    I’m off to go download YouTube..all of it. I’ll show you Internet overload, swine flu!

  28. hills says:

    I love the notation on the bottom of the pic – too funny!

  29. DanKelley98 says:

    Oh c’mon. If they were not home in bed on the internet, they’d be at work doing the same thing.

    Nothing to see here…move along…

  30. jik says:

    I decided to go right to the horse’s mouth on the question of how likely it is that businesses would shut down and/or the government would ask people to stay home as a result of a swine flu outbreak. I contacted an acquaintance who is the directory of infection control at a major Boston health-care facility and who is deeply involved in the state government’s infection-control planning, and here is what he had to say:

    Q: Are private corporations making plans to shut down and have everyone work from home in case of a major outbreak?

    A: Many corporations are making plans for some telecommuting where possible; ranging from “working from home if sick, still infectious but feeling well enough” to “anyone who CAN work at home WILL work at home.” Certainly some are better prepared than others. I think given how things are shaping up, many people may end up working from home for a week at most while ill and recovering but it’s very unlikely any major corporation will “shut down”.

    Q: Are the state and federal governments making plans to shut down cities (i.e., declare a state of emergency and tell everyone to stay home) as needed in case of a major outbreak?

    A: I think that is relatively far-fetched even abstractly, and extremely unlikely in the current pandemic. It would take a far more severe and more transmissible illness to push us to those lengths. It’s not like we don’t discuss those kinds of scenarios abstractly (I am on a Department of Public Health committee that is trying to do some planning for “all hazards”, so we have to consider a very broad range.) It’s just very unlikely.

    I agree with others who have posted here that absent such a major outbreak with businesses and/or cities completely shutting down, it is unlikely that Internet capacity would be overwhelmed as the GAO report suggests. However, like the committee my friend is on, the GAO, too, is responsible for anticipating and planning for “all hazards,” and I *do* think that what they describe in their report is extremely likely to occur if there is a major outbreak.

    Indeed, the GAO report makes it clear that this is the level of pandemic it is concerned with, using such phrases as “severe pandemic” and “a pandemic similar to the one that occurred in 1918.”