Internet Glut Gives Phones a Busy Signal

Article excerpt

For the better part of one day in July and again in November, thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay area weren't able to complete an everyday task: make a phone call.

The reason, Pacific Bell says, is the Internet. The company says Internet congestion has forced it to put 22 of its 650 central offices in California under watch and has left customers facing fast-busy signals or dead air when they pick up their phones.

California leads the rest of the nation in home-computer and Internet use - more than a third of the world's Internet traffic begins or ends in the state. But similar problems are starting to crop up elsewhere in the US. The underlying problem is that today's telephone network is engineered to carry short voice calls, not long data communications. Upgrading this network will cost billions of dollars. And neither the local telephone companies nor Internet access firms are particularly eager to foot the bill. As early as today, the federal government is expected to announce whether it will consider the investment issue. Local telephone companies hope to get federal permission to slap a controversial access fee on companies that offer Internet access. If they win, consumers will likely end up paying more for Internet access. Even if the phone companies lose, the days of a flat $19.95 monthly charge for unlimited Internet use may be near an end. Most publicly traded on-line companies, which offer the flat rate, are losing money. Two pulled out of the consumer Internet business altogether earlier this year. Last week, industry leader Netcom announced it too was discontinuing its popular $19.95 service to concentrate on the business market. "Somehow, we have to get the Internet on a sound economic footing," says Jim Diestel of Pacific Bell. "A flat rate by itself isn't bad. But at $19.95, I'm not sure it makes sense." Bargain access Up to now, computer users have gotten an extraordinary deal. Not only could they use the Internet as much as they wanted for one flat fee, most of them could also connect to it via a local call. Typically for local calls, telephone companies charge by the call, not by the minute. That means the Internet user can stay connected to the computer network for hours and pay the phone company no more than someone making a 10-second call. That poses a challenge for a local phone company like Pacific Bell. It built its network to handle voice calls, which average three to four minutes. But the company has found the average Internet calls lasts 28 minutes. And with an increasing number of customers going on-line, the traffic is starting to choke the system. Another stumbling block in networks' attempts to adjust to the new demands, is that Internet users are changing local calling patterns. In a study of nine of its central offices in the Washington, D.C., area earlier this year, Bell Atlantic found that the presence of an Internet-access company could change peak calling periods from the afternoon (which is traditional) to the evening. …