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A severe outbreak of the H1N1 pandemic could overwhelm internet providers' capacity, according to a report submitted Monday, which called on Department of Homeland Security officials to develop contingency plans to avert such a crisis.

"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," according to the report, which was prepared by the US Government Accountability Office.

It went on to warn that the congestion might be so acute that stock brokers and other securities market employees would be unable to telework from home. The authors said the DHS, which is responsible for making sure critical networks remain operational during emergencies, needs to consider ways to mitigate the threat and held out the rationing of customer bandwidth or the blocking of websites as possibilities.

"Private Internet providers have limited ability to prioritize traffic or take other actions that could assist critical teleworkers," the report stated. "Some actions, such as reducing customers' transmission speeds or blocking popular Web sites, could negatively impact e-commerce and require government authorization. However, DHS has not developed a strategy to address potential Internet congestion or worked with federal partners to ensure that sufficient authorities to act exist."

The authors also floated a possible "campaign to obtain public cooperation to reduce nonessential internet use to relieve congestion."

By contrast, networks used by security exchanges would most likely survive because they generally bypass the public internet.

A PDF of the report is available here. ®

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