Tuesday, May 05, 2009

When Swine Flu

Lafayette has emerged as something of a regional epicenter of the swine flu outbreak. Five parochial schools have been closed, final exams for seniors have been canceled, and local media types are in high dungeon over the fact that our fair community has been targeted by this disease. First, Stanford; now swine flu. Man, it's been a rough spring for the geaux-geaux crowd in this part of the world.

There are some indications that this version of the flu, in its current incarnation, could prove relatively mild (although, the virus continues to mutate and may head south of the equator for cooler, more hospitable climes as summer breaks out up here). So, elements of the response we are seeing now from public health officials and public institutions is something of a test run for the real thing — which could be either a more virulent form of this flu, or something like the bird flu or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

On the other hand, Lafayette is beginning to experience a bandwidth flood which is going to position this community to respond much more effectively to potential disasters like the outbreak of an infectious disease. The LUS fiber network is continuing is ponderously slow roll out across the city (the fiber is getting in place, the problem seems to be a shortage of installers). Cox has announced that Lafayette will be the first community on its network where it deploys Docsis 3 technology, bundling a bunch of network strands together as a means to try to keep up with the bandwidth delivered over fiber.

And, so?

Well, all of this bandwidth will give schools, businesses, government and others the ability to continue functioning in the event of a disease outbreak here. They will be able to do this via teleconferencing, teleworking, distance learning. Call it what you want.

Essentially, we are approaching the point in Lafayette where we can rely on network resources to offset the negative economic, social and other impacts of calamities like disease outbreaks (possibly even man-made and/or natural disasters). That is, if we use the current outbreak as a teaching opportunity, we will see that it would make a lot of sense to bring fiber to our classrooms, so that teaching can continue to take place, even if large numbers of students are absent. Wire the teachers' homes to enable them to teach from there, if conditions warrant.

Within a couple of years, if we commit to it, every household with a child in Lafayette Parish could be connected to a network that ties them into their school. Over these connections, the process of education in our parish could continue unabated, regardless of other circumstances in our parish. It would be as simple as setting up Skype video conference dial-ins under most circumstances.

Companies should ensure that their key employees have fiber or other robust connections so that they can work from home, if something in the environment — disease, chemical, bio hazard — prevents them from being able to go into the office.

Discussions about this possibility are taking place in various places in the technology world. However, Lafayette is uniquely positioned to act because of the kind of connectivity that is being deployed.

This kind of connectivity is not possible in every community, but it is possible in Lafayette Parish because of the network infrastructure that LUS, Cox and even AT&T have deployed here. That connectivity enables a different kind of response; one that can enable life and commerce to continue with limited disruption using the network resources now at our disposal.

This possibility has been out there for a while. It has been part of the case this site has been making in support of the LUS fiber system over the past five years.

Hopefully, the current swine flu outbreak will prove mild. More importantly, we should begin focusing immediately on the lesson we can learn about how to make our next response fundamentally different — and more effective.

Next time an infectious disease hits Lafayette, no school should close. We should begin preparing now so that, next time, learning and commerce can switch seamlessly to the network without missing a beat, a buck, or a lesson. It is another way that Lafayette can put our technology investments to work enhancing the uniqueness of our community.

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