If you're a regular user of the Internet, you know that there are certain times of the day when it seems the 'Net is in "molasses mode" -- things just seem to crawl. The Web pages you are trying to view take forever to load. Or if you're logged onto a computer account, the characters you type seem to take way too long to be displayed on your screen.
You might find yourself thinking, "I've got to get a faster modem," or "I'm going to call my Internet provider and give them a piece of my mind." But there's a pretty good chance that neither course of action would do any good.
Internet traffic bottlenecks can occur in any of several places along the line between your computer and the one you're trying to access. And much of the time, there isn't much you can do about it.
If you're using a modem to connect to the Internet, chances are it's at least capable of operating at 28.8 kilobits per second (kbps) -- that's a fairly standard speed, although some of the newer models are capable of 33.6 kbps or even 56 kbps.
When you connect to the Internet, your modem dials a phone number and establishes a connection with a modem operated by your Internet service provider (ISP). If you don't get a busy signal (that's another kind of problem), your modem and the modem on the other end "talk" to one another (negotiate) for a few seconds, each one trying to learn how fast the other is capable of working, and eventually the two modems arrive at a mutually agreeable speed.
Under normal conditions, it is common for the modems to connect at a speed lower than their top-rated speed, say 24 or 26 kbps. In some areas, phone lines simply aren't good enough to support reliable connections at the highest speed, so a somewhat lower speed is used.
Upgrading to a faster modem is not likely to help much in such cases. Even if you get a 56 kbps modem, if your ISP is still using 28.8 kbps modems, that extra speed capability is wasted. If both modems are the latest and greatest, there are many other places where your data can be slowed down.
There are higher-speed connection options, such as ISDN lines and cable-TV connections like those provided by Sunflower Datavision. Under normal conditions, those faster connections really do perform much better than modems and phone lines. But there are some conditions under which even the fastest connection to your house won't make much difference.
Between your computer and any other computer on the Internet, there might be dozens of separate links, any one of which could be a possible bottleneck. Your ISP most likely has a higher-speed connection to another provider. Too much traffic from too many simultaneous users can slow things down on that connection.
But the bottleneck might be farther up the line, say with your ISP's provider. Or it may be that the slowdown is happening at one or more of the national exchange points where the major providers (MCI, Sprint and others) interconnect. At some of these national interconnection points, it is common for one out of every five data packets to be lost, requiring your computer or the one on the other end to send it again, which slows things down all the more.
Network experts have a variety of software tools they use to track network traffic problems. While these tools are readily available to anyone, the use of them is beyond the scope of this column. But there are places you can go to find out about the general health and performance of the Internet on the national level.
One such site is the Internet Weather Report at http://www.internetweather.com/. This Web page provides a simple table of the national network providers and the current state of performance of their networks. Performance is indicated by the percentage of packet loss each network is experiencing. The site is updated every 15 minutes.
A similar Internet weather report page is sponsored by UCLA at http://www.cns.ucla.edu/weather.html. For a different format, try the MIDS U.S. Weather Report site at http://www3.mids.org/weather/us/, sponsored by Matrix Information and Directory Services (http://www.mids.org/). This site provides a U.S. map with circles of different sizes at various locations across the country indicating the current state of performance of the Internet at those locations.
For more information, go to the AltaVista search site (http://www.altavista.digital.com) and do a search with this string: "internet+weather+report". You might not be comforted much by what you learn about the health of the Internet nationwide, but at least you'll know that it's not always your provider's fault that things are slow.
-- Doug Heacock is director of the Kansas Research and Educational Network at Kansas University. You may address questions to him in care of the Lawrence Journal-World, 609 N.H., Lawrence 66044, or e-mail him at heacock