Telecommuting has long been touted as an effective way to alleviate rush-hour traffic congestion (and pollution), help companies save money by using less office space and resources, and provide workers with a great deal of flexibility in their schedules. But in a case of perhaps too much of a good thing becoming a very bad thing, a federal government report released earlier this month (pdf) warns that a major emergency that keeps people confined to their homes—namely, a worsened H1N1 pandemic—could threaten to overwhelm the Internet, rendering it useless as a way for communicating and conducting transactions vital to public safety and the economy.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the federal agency responsible for working with telecommunications carriers and other private-sector companies to ensure that the critical communications sector (including the networks that make up the Internet), is protected from attacks and other disasters. In addition, whereas most of the initial response to a pandemic will begin at the local level, the U.S. government's National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan calls for the Secretary of the Homeland Security Department to lead overall domestic incident management and federal coordination.

Although the Homeland Security Department has taken some actions to prepare to respond to a pandemic and a possible paralyzing wave of Internet use that could clog communications, it hasn't done nearly enough, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's investigative arm.

For instance, the Homeland Security Department has yet to coordinate with the Federal Communications Commission or any federal government agencies to determine (in advance of a pandemic) whether any of them has the authority to direct private sector Internet providers to do whatever is necessary to relieve network congestion, the report says. The department has also failed to assess the effectiveness and feasibility of mounting a campaign to get the public to reduce nonessential Internet use during a major emergency, even though the department's own research indicates that such a restriction would be an effective move.

Internet providers do have options for breaking up Internet bottlenecks, including adding extra capacity, increasing their use of network management controls, installing direct lines to key organizations, temporarily reducing the maximum transmission rate, and shutting down some Internet sites, according to the GAO. However, each provider is currently left on its own to decide which actions, if any, to take.

So, if the majority of the working population suddenly began working from home, either because they were sick or they were ordered to stay home, such a spike in telecommuting could at the very least decrease productivity and at worst deprive the public of an essential way of receiving information from the government.

Some are skeptical that it will come to this. In his blog Tuesday, Larry Dignan pointed out that the threat of a crippling pandemic has loomed before—SARS and avian flu being two examples—without the Internet grinding to a halt. "The argument is usually the same," he writes. "The masses work from home. We all start sending around PowerPoints. Things blow up." There are several ways for businesses to plan ahead so that their workers are ready for a prolonged stint of telecommuting, if it comes to that. They include making sure employees' remote access to critical files is up and working, asking teleworkers not to send big files during working hours, and coordinating a help-desk strategy for dealing with problems that arise.

Image © Torbjorn Lagerwall