December 30, 1996
Tom Bearden reports on potential new traffic jams on the information superhighway.
TOM BEARDEN: Cybersmith is a cutting edge computer cafe on the edge of the Harvard campus in Boston. People go there to check their e-mail over lunch, try out the latest computer games, or take classes on how to surf the Internet.
INSTRUCTOR: Let's go back and look at the results. Let's go to Yahoo.
TOM BEARDEN: One day this month instructor Michele Foujere was trying to show his students how easy it is access government information and wound up demonstrating an increasingly common problem. Every screen in front of every student froze because some part of the network had overloaded.
INSTRUCTOR: And so traffic becomes a problem. That's going to be a realistic aspect. In this situation I wanted to show you a list of all the finance bills, and we could have chosen them, read about them, and also read about each representative and how they voted in the past. And then we got an error, could not connect, could not contact connection server. So, it happens. In this case there's not a lot you can do.
TOM BEARDEN: Freezes and slowdowns have become much more common because traffic on the Internet is growing at a phenomenal rate. MCI Vice President Vinton Cerf is considered by many to be the father of the Internet.
VINTON CERF, MCI: Our traffic growth is roughly about 300 percent a year. That's under--it's on the order of 10 to 15 percent per month, which is a very rapid growth. I mean, never has any telecommunications system grown this fast.
TOM BEARDEN: To understand how jam-ups can occur on the Internet, it's necessary to know something about how the system works. Most people connect to the Net with a simple telephone call. The modem inside the computer dials a local telephone number. That's where the first slowdown can occur. Calls to the Internet are becoming a serious burden on the local telephone network. Jeffrey Waldhuter is the director of research and development for NYNEX, which provides local phone service for much of the Northeastern U.S.. He says the phone system was designed to handle only fairly brief conversations.
JEFFREY WALDHUTER, NYNEX: It was based on the fact that typical calls would be for four or five minutes for voice, and that there would be so many calls a day. So we could take advantage of concentration, assuming that not everybody would pick up the telephone at the same time and make a call.
TOM BEARDEN: But Internet telephone calls can often last for hours. They tie up the lines, and soon everybody starts getting "all circuits are busy" messages. Sometimes they can't even get a dial tone. If the call gets through, it's connected to another computer called a server at an Internet service provider, often abbreviated as "ISP." Servers are computers that handle lots of calls simultaneously. A bottleneck can occur here because many ISP's just don't have enough servers to keep up with demand, and since many ISP's now offer unlimited access for about $20 a month, users have no incentive to ever hang up. Tim Jackson runs a large ISP in Massachusetts called TEAC, the Internet access company.
TIM JACKSON, The Internet Access Company: Well, the experiences that we've been having with the growth in the industry has been phenomenal. It's been about 8 ½ percent per month.
TOM BEARDEN: Per month?
TIM JACKSON: Per month, yes.
TOM BEARDEN: How do you keep up with that?
TIM JACKSON: Well, you learn to be--it's sort of like changing a tire on a car that's going 60 miles an hour. At first, it's very difficult, and you sort of get into the swing of things and to be able to learn how to do things at that kind of high speed, but after a while, you become acclimated to it.
TOM BEARDEN: Jackson's office is in an almost continuous state of construction as more phone lines are added and more space is made for additional servers. But Jackson admits that smaller ISP's aren't always keeping ahead of demand.
TIM JACKSON: You have to buy sufficient machinery in order to do the job. A lot of Internet providers are out there running their businesses on personal computers that you can buy at places like Comp USA, and you still have the garage shop mentality out there. They're going to basically be weaned out over the next two or three years.
TOM BEARDEN: The phone call next travels through the server to what's called the backbone of the Internet. It's composed of very powerful computers interconnected by high capacity fiber optic cables which pass the traffic to and from millions of computers all over the world. The backbone is maintained by a number of large companies, including long distance phone companies like AT&T and MCI. Cerf says so far they've been able to keep up with the demand.
VINTON CERF: And historically we have driven the Internet to its limits, made it almost to the point of unusability and forced ourselves to increase its capacity. This is a good problem to have. You know, I'm glad to have people forcing us to find new ways to increase the capacity of the Net.
TOM BEARDEN: But the backbone hasn't been completely free of problems. Case in point--the Web site called "Politics Now," operated by the "Washington Post," ABC News, and the "National Journal." On election night last November part of the backbone failed and cut off millions of people who were trying to look at election returns at the site. Evans Wit runs Politics Now.
EVANS WIT, Politics Now: It was literally one of the big pipes, one of the big Internet pipes, which should be filled with nothing but pure, clean digital data. It had noise on it because some of the equipment was having a problem. It's a very hard problem to diagnose. When they did figure out the problem, they shut that channel down because Internet is designed to handle shutdowns such as that, the Internet picked up the capacity, and UUNET brought up some backup facilities to handle the load.
TOM BEARDEN: When a call successfully traverses the backbone, it finally reaches the server that contains the information being sought. That's the last potential choke point. Just like the first server at the ISP, too many requests for data can cause an overload. The server may stop responding to new requests, which is probably what happened to the class at Cybersmith.
INSTRUCTOR: There's nothing we can do. Why does the server slow down? There are a few reasons. One is the hardware or software. The server isn't able to handle all the requests for information from the client.
TOM BEARDEN: The problems at every stage of the Internet are escalating. Helaine Razovsky, a university professor from Louisiana who stopped by Cybersmith to check her e-mail, sometimes just gives up.
HELAINE RAZOVSKY, Internet User: It is frustrating. I have a couple of times turned off--well, logged out of the Internet, turned off the computer, and done something else because I couldn't get anything that I wanted.
TOM BEARDEN: Most industry observers believe these are transitory problems that will be remedied by adding more computers and telephone links. But it'll take time, according to Bob Metcalfe, a columnist for "Info World," a leading computer publication.
BOB METCALFE, Internet Analyst: For the next year, I think you could expect the Internet to get worse before it gets better, the bogging down of the Net, the slowdowns, what we call--we don't call it the World Wide Web anymore. We call it the world wide wait. And I've formed a new club called the World Wide Wait Watchers Club. And that's going to get worse.
TOM BEARDEN: It will also take money. The question is whose? For example, NYNEX's Waldhuter says it'll take a major upgrade to the phone system.
JEFF WALDHUTER: We want to take the Internet traffic off the existing phone work because it was never intended to be there, put it on a separate network, and to achieve that, there's investments that have to be made.
TOM BEARDEN: Waldhuter thinks the ISP's ought to pay for such a network through user fees, but most ISP's are prepared to fight that idea to the bitter end. Metcalfe also thinks the basic software that controls how the Internet transmits information has been stretched too far and needs to be re-engineered and rewritten. Until that's done, he predicts more outright failures like those that shut down Netcom and American Online earlier this year.
BOB METCALFE: I'm now famous for predicting collapses of the Internet, by which I mean prolonged outages. Those collapses will be more frequent, deeper, affecting more people, and those collapses will continue on that trend until the basic fragility of the Net gets fixed.
TOM BEARDEN: Vinton Cerf thinks the Net is more robust than that.
VINTON CERF: The fact of the matter is that the network's made up of about 200,000 nets that are all interconnected around the world. The whole system won't crash because it's, you know, got so many independent pieces that if one guy goes down, the rest of the pieces keep functioning.
TOM BEARDEN: The history of the Internet so far has been one of barely controlled chaos. Metcalfe says the current problems prove it's time for that to change.
BOB METCALFE: The fundamental problem, I think, or the thing we should fix first is the process by which the Internet is managed. And basically the Internet is not managed. There is--there are some attempts at it, but there's no systematic way by which Internet service providers--and there's about four thousand of those, three or four thousand in North America-there's no process by which those service providers cooperate.
TOM BEARDEN: Metcalfe says the worst possible manager would be the government because it is unable to react fast enough to keep up with the warp speed development of the Net. Most of the other players on the Net agree, but given the almost pathologically independent mind set of those players, a consensus of where the Internet ought to go next, will be very hard to reach.