The Government Accountability Office reported earlier this week that if the flu reaches a pandemic, a surge in telecommuting and children accessing video files and games at home could bog down local networks.
And if that were to happen, it is not clear whether the federal government is prepared to deal with the problem, the GAO said.
The Department of Homeland Security is in charge of communications networks during times of national emergency. But it doesn't have a strategy to deal with overloaded Internet networks -- an essential resource to keep the economy humming, and residents informed and connected during a pandemic, the GAO said. Furthermore, the DHS hasn't coordinated with agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission to create guidelines for how telecom, cable and satellite providers can minimize congestion.
Such confusion "would increase the risk that the federal government will not be able to respond rapidly or effectively if a pandemic quickly emerges," the GAO reported.
Network operators such as Comcast, AT&T, Cox and Verizon are limited in their options. They could add bandwidth capacity and lay down private lines for essential workers, but that is expensive and would take too long. Shutting down certain Web sites or prioritizing traffic could run into technical and regulatory hurdles, the report said.
An Internet service provider could decide to slow all connections in a certain neighborhood, but then that network operator would be violating contracts with customers, according to the report.
"Private Internet providers have limited ability to prioritize traffic or take other actions that could assist critical tele-workers. Some actions, such as reducing customers' transmission speeds or blocking popular Web sites, could negatively impact e-commerce and require government authorization," the GAO report said.
House Energy and Commerce Committee members commissioned the report, asking the GAO to specifically look at how financial markets would deal with such a scenario.
In its response to the GAO, the DHS said it didn't know which agency had clear or specific authority to allow telecom, cable and satellite companies to block or slow traffic to cope with congestion. The FCC can grant exceptions to its Internet access rules that would allow prioritization of certain traffic in instances where public safety is in jeopardy.