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TRENDS | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / TERRY SCHWADRON

Practice Art of Waiting as the World Wide Web Expands

December 23, 1996|TERRY SCHWADRON

Just as I've become comfortable in dialing up the World Wide Web, its surging popularity is making me a victim. There are times that my entire life passes before me while I wait for the Web to respond.

I know, it's not just me. Frustration is on the rise all across the Internet as enthusiasts wait and wait for electronic connections to click and computerized pages to appear.

The simple truth is there's not a whole lot that can be done about the problems any time soon. There are a number of overlapping issues at play here, among them our extraordinary expectations about technological performance, but all of them point to an economic Judgment Day just around the corner.

Here's what's been happening to traffic:

* By every measure I can check, use of Internet services is soaring, and not just in the United States. Hordes of new adherents continue to enroll with an ever-proliferating number of Internet service provider, or ISP, companies, many prompted by Microsoft's release of its one-button access to the Web.

* America Online, the largest Web access route in the country, created an avalanche of new traffic when it switched to a $19.95 flat rate last month. The new pricing has increased AOL subscriptions by a third, to nearly 9 million, and has prompted many existing customers to spend more time online. The company is having a hard time managing the load.

* The holiday season is awash with advertising for Web-related products, notably the $300 Web TV device that makes it possible to use the Web with any television set. This could draw millions of new users to the Web, especially as the price of the machine comes down over the next year. (Times Mirror Co., publisher of The Times, is an investor in Web TV Networks.)

*

Here's what's been happening to the content on the Web:

* In addition to the zillions who are publishing personal journals, essays and family pictures on the Web, commercial firms have moved in such huge numbers to the Internet that hardly a television commercial passes by that does not display the company's electronic address. The growth of electronic publishing has been so dramatic that it's begun to exhaust the availability of what are called domain names, the ".com" appended to commercial Web site names.

* The same consumers who complain about slow speeds are demanding more game-like interactivity from publishers. Graphics, dancing bunnies, decorations, photos, audio clips and video feeds all make the actual data size of Web pages swell enormously. Electronically speaking, we're trying to push fatter cows down the same-sized chute.

Here's what's been happening with the behind-the-scenes wiring:

* Phone companies and ISPs are knocking themselves out to deliver higher-speed phone circuits between workplaces or homes and the nearest Internet access points, learning that consumers are willing to pay extra for services such as ISDN in hopes of getting faster service.

* There is more and more experimentation with cable modems, which in theory at least are hundreds of times faster than normal household computer modems, as well as early efforts in wireless Internet access. But the wires that carry traffic across the country--or across the globe--have not really changed, so the bottlenecks now are in the network as a whole as much as the individual circuit to the home or office.

* There are new pressures on the Net architecture itself. Phone lines carrying Internet traffic meet up to exchange data at what are called "public junctions." In nontechnical terms, these are the multilevel rail stations with lots of crisscrossing lines.

As traffic grows and ISP companies multiply, the big crush is happening at these junctions. However fast my modem is, it only gets me to my local ISP company, and however fast the service, it only gets me to the nearest long-distance telephone line. When the telephone services meet in those public junctions, it's the data exchange protocols that are getting overwhelmed.

The result: lower speeds and even worse, loss of data, known as "packet loss." The result for Internet publishers: incomplete pages or sites. The results to consumers: frustration.

*

So what's it going to take to improve all of this? And when?

Here are my fearless predictions:

* Someone's going to make pipelines bigger by laying millions of miles of bigger or more efficient wiring. The telephone companies talk about it, but the real question is: Who's going to pay for it?

Unlimited Internet access for $19.95 is not really a viable business proposition. It exists only because some carriers, such as AOL, hope to generate traffic and then make money in other ways, and because Internet services don't pay full freight for using the public telephone network (to the great irritation of the local phone companies).

Netcom, the big ISP that led the way on $19.95 flat rate pricing, is now leading the retreat, announcing last week that it will no longer offer such a service. Eventually, we're all going to get a higher bill.

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