The much-hyped Internet has begun hitting gridlock.
Millions of computer users now crowding onto the global network have produced slower and slower connections or connections that shut down altogether.
“What’s happened is the traffic on the networks has gone up geometrically. But the underlying connections are not growing as fast,” said Brian Antoine, a network engineer for Spokane’s Olivetti North America Inc. office. Built to be a high-speed network of computers that can exchange data or documents around the globe, the Internet has developed bottlenecks that are slowing traffic to a crawl.
Internet users can send or receive volumes of data - either through e-mail messages or by grabbing documents off the World Wide Web, which has huge libraries of photos, video and audio files.
When thousands are using the Internet at once, the effect can be like squeezing interstate traffic onto a two-lane side street.
Much of the problem stems from dramatic growth in the number of Internet users in the past year. Millions of new users have jumped onto the World Wide Web from services like America Online or Compuserve.
Beth Pfeiffer, an information specialist for Gonzaga University, has watched the Internet lose its speed in the past year.
“It takes me about five times longer to download something than it used to,” said Pfeiffer, who works at GU’s Regional Information Services.
The traffic strains on the Internet are occurring most in the United States, where Internet use is highest. When long-distance giant AT&T; jumps into the Internet-access business next month, it will add even more users and compound the stress.
For now, those slowdowns are random and unpredictable. “You have to remember that the Internet is a 40-million-person party line,” said Jeff Presley, an engineer for CompuTech, a Spokane Internet provider.
“It changes every second. A problem now might be no big deal 15 minutes later,” he said.
Other users, like David Schmidt of Spokane’s Internet On-Ramp, another network access provider, say the gridlock is temporary.
“We’ve been hearing the same prediction - that the Internet is about to crash - for years now.
“This heavy use,” he added, “is a network growth phase. And that will cause improvements that will ease the problem, as they have before.”
That growth has occurred at the same time that the federal government - which spawned the Net 20 years ago - got out of managing the backbone systems or trunk lines on which the data traffic moves.
Those network pieces all communicate with one another, keeping track of which computer has sent a file and deciding what route it will take from Point A to Point B.
On the Internet, the path is seldom a straight shot. An e-mail message from Spokane to Washington, D.C., could make 15 hops, from here to California, to Minnesota, and finally to its destination.
Various companies now run the key network trunk lines, from Sprint and MCI to firms like UUNet and Northwest Net.
Presley said all of the trunk providers are facing overload, but some parts of the network are probably more clogged than others.
He and others have run system checks and spotted major data overloads occurring in Northern California, primarily at an MCI connection hub near San Francisco.
For many Spokane Internet users, that hub is a major way station.
That means Internet users here will complain to their provider about long delays or broken connections.
Said Presley: “All we can do is monitor the situation and alert the backbone provider that there’s a problem.”
MCI and Sprint officials tell him they’re working to install bigger connecting hardware, and ultimately, larger trunk lines, so that more data can squeeze through the system.
Until the problems are fixed, Gonzaga’s Pfeiffer now sidesteps the Net when hunting information for business clients.
One of the main sources of information, the commercial database Dialog, charges her for how long she remains connected to its computer.
Pfeiffer has stopped using an Internet connection to Dialog and begun relying on an old-fashioned phone-modem hookup.
She dials another company that gives her the same Dialog information, but at a slower rate than when the Internet is problem-free.
“It costs an extra fee to use that firm,” she said.
“But we can save money because we shorten the download time that’s gotten so long on the Internet.”
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