March Madness and Your Corporate Computer Networks

By Bill Leonard Mar 20, 2013

If there is a discernible slowdown in your company’s Internet connection during the last two weeks of March, then college basketball might just be the reason.

The NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament began March 19, 2013. The annual tournament poses some interesting challenges for corporate information technology departments as millions of basketball fans attempt to view games on their office computers.

Most of this online viewing will likely happen on March 21 and 22, when 32 of the tournament’s 67 games will be played. During the tourney’s first three days of play, (March 19, 21 and 22), 34 games will be broadcast on television and available online for video streaming, primarily during business hours.

Basketball Free-for-All …

“Broadband connections at work on that first Thursday and Friday are huge for us,” said Mark Johnson, vice president of business operations for Turner Sports, during a recent media briefing. “On those two days we’ll do 40 percent to 50 percent of our video streams.”

Turner Sports and CBS plan to air most of the tournament games on their networks and offer access to the games online. Turner Sports’ March Madness Live website will stream all 67 tournament games for free. Johnson told reporters at the briefing that one of the peak times for video streaming will be noon on March 21. “On Thursday at noon there is going to be a rush to get in.”

The demand for video streaming of the games will be huge in 2013, Johnson predicted. During the 2012 NCAA tourney, websites that offered live streaming of games had a total of 220 million visitors across online and mobile platforms—an 11 percent increase from 2011, according to statistics released by Turner Sports. With the proliferation and expanded video capabilities of tablets and smartphones, the number of people live streaming basketball games should increase significantly in 2013, Johnson said.

… Means Problems for Business

All this expanded coverage and increased access to devices could lead to a significant slowdown of Internet response times during the peak hours of the tournament, according to several IT experts interviewed for this article.

Live streaming of video and audio eats up Internet bandwidth.

Some IT analysts have estimated that more than 50 percent of the entire bandwidth capacity in the United States is used for video streaming during peak hours of usage, which is typically weekends and evenings, when people view videos through online video providers like Hulu Plus, Netflix and Apple TV.

During the tournament’s peak hours, some experts estimate, more than 60 percent of U.S. Internet bandwidth could be used for live video streams.

Larger employers with higher-capacity bandwidths for Internet connections might not notice any changes to online response times, but businesses with smaller bandwidth capacities could experience significant slowdowns.

Internet response times for customers and other website users, like job applicants, can be sluggish or even shut down completely. Historically, Internet slowdowns caused by the NCAA tourney have been minor, and employers generally haven’t noticed any issues, but that could change as an increasing number of people try to stream the games live.

“It really hasn’t been much of a concern among my clients,” said Jonathan Yarbrough, a partner in the Asheville, N.C., law office of Costangy Brooks & Smith LLC. “This time of year we hear more questions relating to office betting pools but nothing really on Internet-usage problems.”

Put Policy in Play

Yarbrough said that the beginning of the tournament might be a good time to remind employees about corporate Internet-usage policies. The proliferation of smartphones and computer tablets is adding a new wrinkle to the issue as more workers look to access the Web with their private devices using corporate wireless Internet connections, he added.

“Some companies have policies in place about using personal devices at work, but most offer pretty open access to their employees who want to use corporate Wi-Fi systems, and this could eventually pose some challenges,” he said, including security risks.

“Technology is advancing so much faster than laws and corporate policies, so it’s virtually impossible for employers to keep up with the changes.”

IT experts said companies can respond by limiting or blocking employees’ access to certain Internet sites. In addition, by limiting broadband access, IT departments can essentially slow down video streaming, which causes videos to lock up or constantly buffer the live feed. According to one source, slow video feeds usually cause viewers to give up.

Downloading videos is one of the most common ways an employee can inadvertently introduce a virus to a corporate network. Malware picked up from websites can slow down and eventually shut down a computer, so it’s a good idea to remind employees of these risks, sources said.

Monitoring employees and what sites they are visiting on the Internet is possible, though time-consuming, and it will turn any IT department into office cops. And it can be a challenge for supervisors to actually catch someone watching a game online unless they constantly patrol the office floor.

CBS and Turner Sports offer a “boss button” on their video feeds. Clicking on the button immediately brings up an Excel spreadsheet. The boss button functions have been available for several years, and sports and entertainment writers have commented on how realistic the spreadsheet looks. According to news reports, CBS is now physically placing ads on the fake spreadsheet. There is even a YouTube video demonstrating how the boss button works on other programs.

Yarbrough said that other than putting an outright ban on game viewing or shutting down online access, employers will have a tough time stopping employees from watching the games.

“If it’s a big deal in your office, then why not put a TV in an office break room where people can gather to watch games, and maybe have a computer or two available where people can watch a game or check scores online if they want to?” he suggested.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.


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