How telcos and ISPs are prepping for a pandemic

Network management, bandwidth priority will become critical tools

Network operators and IT professionals already worried about how hurricanes and financial meltdowns will impact their work lives can add another potential catastrophe to their list of concerns: a global pandemic.

During a panel sponsored by the FCC in Washington, D.C., Thursday, representatives from telecom carriers and ISPs discussed what steps they’ve been taking to prepare for the mass outbreak of a disease such as influenza, and also described the needs and challenges they would have to meet to keep communications up and running during a major global crisis. The most important tool at ISPs’ disposal during a serious pandemic, panelists agreed, was that of network management.

Christopher Guttman-McCabe, the vice president for regulatory affairs for the CTIA wireless association, predicted that during a severe pandemic, many workers would either work exclusively from home or from more remote locations that would limit their potential exposure to disease.

“Network management and network grooming will absolutely come into play if we have a significant number of people living in shelters or staying at home to work,” he said. “A pandemic is rather similar to the aftermath of what happens during a natural disaster such as a hurricane. Carriers need to determine where public safety needs the most help, and also where key 911 facilities and key hospitals are located. From there they can boost key cellular signals depending on the circumstances.”

Robert Mayer, the vice president of industry and state affairs for the US Telecom Association, said carriers and ISPs would face significant difficulties in limiting the amount of high-bandwidth traffic that occurred in residential areas during a pandemic. Because residential areas are out of the control of corporate IT departments and aren’t equipped with the same traffic-shaping capabilities as enterprise networks, Mayer said carriers would either have to directly interfere with Web traffic or at least educate people on what they should and should not be downloading during national emergencies.

In particular, Mayer said people would have to be told not to stream videos or use peer-to-peer technology that could clog the local network and prevent basic communications such as e-mail from getting through. While Mayer acknowledged that the network neutrality debate has made some carriers “nervous” about giving priority to certain traffic, he said in a true national disaster, the FCC would no doubt give carriers leeway to shape traffic to give vital Web communications the highest priority.

“As people migrate to a residential usage area for work, we could see traffic patterns that go way beyond our normal peak traffic hours,” he said. “And if that happens, we’re going to see some congestion. We don’t know how many children will be home and trying to access the Internet along with their parents.”

But even if carriers were allowed to shape traffic as they pleased, Mayer acknowledged that there would be severe limits to what they could accomplish. For example, he noted that it would be impossible for carriers to know whether someone was working from home as a physician and needed quick access to important medical information, or whether someone working from home worked in retail. This, he and other panelists agreed, is why carriers and ISPs will need to effectively communicate to the public what is and what is not smart protocol for communicating during a national emergency.

Andy Skotdal, the president and general manager of the Everett, Wash.-, radio station KRKO-AM, said he and fellow members of the National Association of Broadcasters would play a critical role in educating the public on the best ways to keep communications networks effective and fast. Specifically, Skotdal said radio and television broadcasters would have to take the lead in giving the public important knowledge that could prevent them from inadvertently sabotaging their own attempts to get into contact with friends and loved ones.

“For instance, people need to be told during an earthquake what to do if you pick up a phone and you don’t immediately get a dial tone,” he said. “Most people don’t know that the solution is to hang onto the phone and wait for the dial tone to come on… because if you keep hanging up and trying to reconnect over and over again, you’re going to overload the switch.”

Guttman-McCabe expressed a similar sentiment and said the public needed to be educated on similar protocols for wireless services. One of the key problems that occurred with wireless networks during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said, was that people would make phone calls to people in New York and would not hang up after making contact for fear of not being able to reconnect to the network. The message needs to get out that if you make a call during an emergency, you need to make contact and then hop off the network to make room for everyone else.

But Ron Laudner, Jr., the CEO for telco OmniTel Communications in Iowa, said changing user behavior was only part of the equation for successfully navigating through a catastrophe such as a pandemic. The other important factor, he said, was that carriers change their behavior and rearrange their priorities to act more as public service vehicles rather than competitive enterprises. This means working more with competitors and with government agencies, giving enterprise-like offsite storage and VPN capacity to more residential areas to accommodate teleworkers, and even temporarily forgoing the profit motive.

“In a pandemic, the last thing I will do is worry about sending a bill to a customer,” he said.

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