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Dave Wilson

There's No Accounting for Internet Unreliability

February 15, 2001|Dave Wilson | Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.

I have five personal Internet accounts. Something is seriously wrong here.

I could get by with two accounts: one land-line connection--such as dial-up, cable or DSL--and one wireless. Instead, what I have is three standard dial-up accounts and two wireless accounts. It's an insane situation.

My decision to maintain those accounts, however, is quite rational. Painful, but rational.

The problem is that Internet access isn't reliable. In fact, as I write this, three of my five Internet accounts have something wrong with them: They can't send mail, or I can't log on, or the connection keeps dying. These problems ebb and flow, and no one account is better or worse than any other. So I juggle all five in order to guarantee that I have access to a working account when I absolutely need it.

Sometimes even that isn't enough. Recently, all five of my accounts--Ricochet, GoAmerica, iPass Connect through, Verio and EarthLink--were hosed, for various reasons, simultaneously.

Is anybody else baffled that a gazillion-dollar economic expansion is being built on a technology that is completely undependable?

I can't remember the last time I picked up a telephone and didn't hear a dial tone. Sure, the telephone service is less reliable on a certain level than it used to be. With real competition creeping in, the telephone companies are spending less on making sure there's enough machinery hooked up to meet peak demand. That's one reason why you're much more likely to get that "All circuits are busy" message on any given day than you were just a few years ago.

But in general, the telephone works pretty much all the time.

Of course, the telephone is a 19th century technology. We've spent more than 100 years figuring out how to build a telephone system that's operational better than 99% of the time.

OK, the Internet is relatively new, so we need to cut it some slack. But why hasn't a market arisen to meet my need for reliable Internet service?

If standard dial-up Internet access costs about 20 bucks a month, I'd gladly pay twice that to anybody who'd guarantee me that I wouldn't get stuck because my Internet service provider flaked out.

But such problems aren't always the responsibility of the ISP. Because the Net relies on the exchange of data between components owned and operated by lots of different players, problems are harder to identify and often difficult to correct.

Factor in the deliberate attacks from malevolent computer crackers, buggy software and plain old equipment failure, and it's a marvel that any Internet connection works at all, much less that it isn't always up. And if standard dial-up service is hinky, the reliability of high-speed services such as digital subscriber line is even worse.

Incredibly, most of the companies selling DSL service don't include as a part of the package a free dial-up account as a kind of backup that users can tap into when the DSL connection goes bye-bye.

Adding insult to injury, many DSL providers offer an emergency dial-up account at an additional charge. But they maintain that dial-up account through the same systems on which they run their DSL service. They're effectively encouraging users to purchase two levels of service from the same provider.

Here's an important safety tip: Don't buy your parachutes from the same company that sold you the plane. If a DSL connection isn't working, the chances are really good that any dial-up connection running on that same provider's computers won't work either. Backup Internet connections should be set up with different providers.

The concept is known as redundancy, and because my Net connection is critical to my work life, I've got redundant connections out the wazoo. Redundancy is a relative term, however. For instance, a company worried about what happens if the single big, fat cable carrying its Internet connection fails might pay extra money to have a second cable installed. Just make sure the cables aren't buried right next to each other or else, as the UPI wire service discovered some years ago, a single construction crew digging a small hole in the wrong place can sever both cables with one stroke.

Someday, I hope to be able to reduce the number of Internet accounts I have to baby-sit. I'm hoping that will happen because the Internet will become reliable and a rock-solid provider eventually will appear. But on my bad days, I'd be willing to settle for life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where redundancy consists of carrying a spare rock.



* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A. T10

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