The struggle to stay wired, in a hotel room or a crisis

 The first thing I do when I check into a hotel room on a business trip is head directly to the desk to make sure the Internet connection works. If the Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection does not snap to life, I am ready to march down to the lobby and threaten to check out if the hotel can’t fix it.
         The non-negotiable demand for connectivity says less about our impatience and sense of entitlement as business travelers (or so I’d like to think) than it does about our basic needs. We’re accustomed to being connected, we need to be connected, and we get upset when we’re not.
        Business travel, and even the augmentations to business travel like videoconferencing, are all firmly on the grid. The rapidly developing industry of installing Wi-Fi connections on airplanes is a testament to our dependence on connectivity — and the joke underscores the insistence that it be reliable.
         But are we on thin ice, technologically? The Association of Corporate Travel Executives, a worldwide trade group representing company travel managers, says it believes we are. To an extent not fully appreciated by policymakers, the organization says, business travel is dependent on fragile technological networks that have already shown the stresses of a sudden strain.
         How fragile? Take an event like the unexpected death of Michael Jackson on June 25. As tens of millions of people rushed online for the details, important interchanges on the Web sagged, faltered and, in some cases, crashed. “Google News, TMZ, Twitter and Wikipedia all experienced temporary outages or interruptions” as users raced from one site to another collecting and forwarding information, said Susan Gurley, executive director of the travel executives’ organization.
         The AOL instant messenger service went down for 40 minutes, and AOL called the collapse “a seminal moment in Internet history.”
         That’s what a news bulletin about a dead singer can do. Imagine, then, the online consequences to far-flung travelers of a real crisis like a sudden acceleration in the swine flu pandemic. Many companies that send employees on the road have created detailed contingency plans for dealing with such a crisis, “and nearly all of them rely on the Internet for implementation,” Gurley said.
         Gurley’s organization is about to begin a campaign to call attention to the potential fragility of the Internet, and the need to develop a national initiative to make sure it works in a crisis. She and others in the corporate travel world say they are concerned that President Barack Obama’s plan to appoint a top official to oversee the Internet has so far been focused on cybersecurity and privacy — important issues, of course — but with inadequate attention to shoring up the Internet infrastructure to make sure it keeps working under great pressure.
         No one is panicking over swine flu, but the United States Centers for Disease Control said recently that 40 percent of Americans could be affected over two years if vaccines and other preventive measures were not taken.
         If a widespread outbreak were to occur quickly, business travelers stranded around the world, and the large numbers of employees who are suddenly required to work from home for health reasons, would merely add to the strains on the World Wide Web. The Web, meanwhile, would already be under pressure from millions of people seeking and sharing vital information.
         “The truth is that no one knows how the Internet will work under these circumstances,” Gurley said. “Are we headed for a vast global Internet crash? In truth, there may not be a lot we can do about it. But we think it’s time now to start finding out, before a crisis occurs.”
        

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