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'Net May Protect Economy From Swine Flu, GAO Finds

in Broadband's Impact/Net Neutrality by

WASHINGTON, November 3, 2009 - The Internet could provide vital links between people and institutions to keep government running and businesses operating during an outbreak of H1N1 influenza, said a report released in October by the Government Accountability Office.

Maintaining a robust infrastructure that can handle a rise in the use of bandwidth-heavy applications that would be used during widespread pandemic-based telecommuting should be a top priority for network operators during times of heightened concern, the report said.

"It is obvious that a functioning Internet will keep both government, private companies and individuals in contact, and people will be able to access information from wherever they are."

The Internet would allow people to communicate effectively without coming together physically during an outbreak, GAO said. This would assist in creating “social distance” to reduce the potential for illness to further spread.

Many other governmental agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, have been advocating that businesses and other enterprises consider increased use of telework by their workforce as a way to continue operations while maintaining physical separation from other workers during a pandemic.

Doing so would typically involve employees working from home and accessing their business’s networks over an Internet connection. Some entities have also advocated the use of the Internet as a means for reducing the social isolation that could arise when people are asked to avoid contact with others.”

But despite warnings over the harm of an H1N1 outbreak, the Department of Homeland Security has not weighed in on the importance of protecting networks during a pandemic or under threat of one - a situation the report called "unfortunate."

This omission contrasts the public tug-of-war for agency or executive authority to seize control of networks during national emergencies under proposed "cybersecurity" legislation.

Even without including H1N1 in its cyber doomsday scenarios, the department has failed to even assessed the viability of finding ways to call upon the public to voluntarily reduce non-essential network usage  in order to relieve congestion and maintain network availability for the public interest, the report scolds.

But a separate DHS study says increased demand during a severe pandemic could exceed the capacities of Internet providers’ access networks for residential users and interfere with teleworkers in crucial sectors such as the securities market and other sectors.

Currently, private Internet providers have limited ability to prioritize traffic or take other actions that could assist critical teleworkers - and many fear the FCC's recent Net neutrality regulation would proscribe any such conduct, however well-intentioned.

An intern at the National Journalism Center, Mercy was a Reporter-Researcher for until November 2009. She was a business reporter on leave from the Daily Nation of Nairobi, Kenya. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and Education from Daystar University in Nairobi.

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