H1N1 could affect speed of Internet

PHILADELPHIA – Like many big organizations, Comcast Corp. is taking precautions to halt the spread of H1N1. As a preliminary precaution, 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, might have a bigger problem on its hands if the flu leads to rampant absenteeism by the nation’s students and workers.

All those people could be on the Internet at home at the same time, a recent government report warned. That could lead to slow downloads, as bandwidth would be consumed at a rate vastly greater than normal.

Homebound workers and bored teenagers could overload the Internet with video game downloads, Web surfing, 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, said 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.

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. 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, said 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 absenteeism in the Philadelphia area, one of its largest markets.

The company said the flu could infect different areas of the nation at different times. So everybody won’t be on his or her home Internet at the same time everywhere.

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

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