Internet Gridlock Reaches Epidemic Proportions

By Jeff Pelline and Jon Swartz San Francisco Chronicle | THE JOURNAL RECORD, May 2, 1996 | Go to article overview

Internet Gridlock Reaches Epidemic Proportions


Jeff Pelline and Jon Swartz San Francisco Chronicle, THE JOURNAL RECORD


Like a frustrated commuter at rush hour, consumers increasingly are running into traffic jams, bottlenecks and other delays when trying to log onto the touted Internet.

The problem, likened to a "brownout" from overuse of energy on a hot summer day, is reaching epidemic proportions, many experts say.

Internet gridlock is expected to get worse, too, as telecommunications giants such as AT&T and Baby Bells such as Pacific Telesis, US West and Bell Atlantic this year begin offering cheap, or free, Internet access to the masses. Until now, the market has been dominated by "mom-and-pop" companies.

California is especially vulnerable because it handles 40 percent of the nation's Internet traffic.

Unless the log jam is unclogged soon, experts are concerned that the Internet will go the way of fads such as the Hula-Hoop or pet rock, at least for consumers. The gridlock also is undermining efforts by its pioneers, scientists and engineers, to conduct high- level research.

"It is highly likely this year that there will be major outages that affect hundreds of thousands of people for hours, maybe days," said Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet networking technology who predicted a collapse of the Internet in a recent column in InfoWorld magazine. "It's too late to avoid collapses; the U.S. Internet is a house of cards."

He said the Net is most susceptible to gridlock, sabotage and bugs, but will recover after several scares.

"The Internet is experiencing growing pains," said David Garrison, chief executive of Netcom On-Line Communication Services Inc. of San Jose, one of the largest Internet access providers."Being a leader in the industry, we are certainly impacted by those pains."

Some scientists who regularly use the Internet for research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and other labs, recently complained about the "disastrous state of the Internet." They cited "very slow" connections and an often "completely catatonic" network.

Last month, a group of top government officials, known as the Federal Networking Council, met in Washington to discuss how to fix the mounting problem.

The backup is caused by too many Internet users on a network that needs to be upgraded to handle more traffic -- not just e-mail to your mom but powerful three-dimensional, animated graphics and video conferencing.

"The growth of the Internet is mind boggling," said Thomas Kalil, senior director of the White House National Economic Council. "Our ability to store and process information is also exploding: Today's $300 video games have more computing power than a $20 million, 1976- vintage supercomputer."

The global computer network, like a labyrinth of Los Angeles freeway interchanges that crisscross the world, connects nearly 10 million computers, tens of millions of users and more than 100 countries.

The Internet has more than 8,000 member networks, up from only 200 in 1985. By some estimates, as many as 20 million people worldwide may be able to receive e-mail via the Internet -- more than the entire population of Canada or Australia.

The World Wide Web, the fastest-growing segment of the Internet, has an estimated 13 million Web sites, and 1 million new ones are popping up every month, said Allen Weiner, an analyst at Dataquest Inc., the San Jose research firm. They run the gamut: from corporate ads to pornography to personal Web pages.

As more people log on, they experience frustrating delays. One common example: You call up a Web page on the Internet and the screen freezes while it's being displayed.

Or you can't connect at all and this high-tech `90s busy signal appears: "The server may not be accepting connections or may be busy. Try connecting again later."

Some examples of gridlock include:

* During the holiday rush, Netcom experienced a crush of Internet users, many of them armed with newly bought personal computers. …

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