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Flu pandemic fear: too many people home sick overwhelms internet

Telecommuting is a way of life for most businesses, as the internet keeps us connected to the office, from near and far.

With the swine flu in full swing, businesses have adopted contingency plans to allow their employees to work from home if they are sick, or at least until they get well enough not to infect their colleagues upon their return.

But in the event of a severe pandemic flu emergency, sending millions of workers home, the sheer magnitude of people logging on from their home computers could create so much internet congestion, the entire system could be crippled, a new report from the Government Accountability Office warns. 

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This is not merely a question of how would we all survive without Google for a few days. (Although that is a frightening prospect) Such an onslaught could imperil the financial markets and even threaten national security, the report states.

If schools and workplaces were to close because of a severe H1N1 outbreak, an increase in internet traffic could overwhelm local providers' capacity. Such clogged communications could threaten essential activity to keep the nation's economic engine churning.

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While many of the securities markets have contingency plans in place to be certain they can stay up and running during an emergency, not all were prepared, the GAO said. The Securities and Exchange Commission needs a better review of the policies, the report stated.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security, responsible for making sure critical communications continue in an emergency, needs to develop a plan for confronting such a scenario, the GAO said.

In addition, according to the report, the agency hasn't discussed the issue with the public, recommending such things as limiting internet usage to vital matters only during an emergency and other guidelines. And it hasn't sorted out with other agencies who has the authority to do what needs to be done to lessen internet congestion.

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