Why is the Internet so infuriatingly slow?

Inside the Internet.
Sept. 5 2008 7:45 AM

Why Is the Internet So Infuriatingly Slow?

Plus, two horrible things your Internet service provider wants to do to make it speedier.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Everyone hates their Internet service provider. And with good cause: In the age of ubiquitous Internet access, Web service in America is still often frustratingly slow. Tired of being the villain, telecom companies have assigned blame for this problem to a new bad guy. He's called the "bandwidth hog," and it's his fault that streaming video on your computer looks more like a slide show than a movie. The major ISPs all tell a similar story: A mere 5 percent of their customers are using around 50 percent of the bandwidth—sometimes more during peak hours. While these "power users" are sharing three-gig movies and playing online games, poor granny is twiddling her thumbs waiting for Ancestry.com to load.

The ISPs are certainly correct that there's a problem: The current network in the United States struggles to accommodate everyone, and the barbarians at the gate—voice-over-IP telephony, live video streams, high-def movies—threaten to drown the grid. (This Deloitte report has a good treatment of that eventuality.) It's less clear that the telecom companies, fixated as they are on the bandwidth hogs, are doing a good job of managing the problem and planning for the future. The ISPs have put forward two big ideas, in recent months, about how to fix our bandwidth crisis. We can arrange these plans into two categories: horrible now and horrible later.

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Plan One: Feed the meter. Category: Horrible now. In January, Time Warner announced it was rolling out an experimental plan in Beaumont, Texas, that charged users by the gigabyte. Thirty dollars would get you 5 gigabytes a month, while a $55 plan would get you 40. Each extra gigabyte over the limit costs a buck. In succeeding months, this data-capping idea has caught on. Comcast recently announced that it's drawing the line at 250 gigabytes per user per month. Once you've used that much bandwidth, you can get your account suspended.

A limit of 250 gigs a month is plenty enough for most of us, at least for now. Silicon Alley Insider has a nice rundown of what it would take to hit that limit, to the tune of two HD movies a day and a lot of gaming on the side. But that assumes your connection is speedy enough to stream high-quality video in the first place. It's a chicken-and-egg problem: People use less bandwidth when their connection is crawling from congestion.

A reasonable argument can be made that this is a sound way to clear up congestion. It is rather unfair that people who barely use the Web have to pay the same or similar rates as people who use BitTorrent all day. The "meterists"—and there are a few of them out there—think systems like Time Warner's are inherently fairer, as they end the practice of forcing light users to subsidize heavy users. The rosiest scenarios even suppose that a pay-as-you-go Internet could give telecoms the financial incentive to expand their networks.

The criticism is easy to condense: No one joyrides in a taxi. A plan like this, as its many opponents have noted, will cramp the freewheeling, inventive nature of the Internet. The Internet owes its success to two pillars of human activity: masturbation and procrastination. (Seriously: We have the porn companies to thank for pioneering all sorts of technologies, from VHS to secure credit-card transactions online.) Is the Internet really the Internet if people don't use it to waste time?

Widespread deployment of capped or metered plans would also cripple businesses that have invested in high-bandwidth products, like videoconferencing. And if people start pinching bytes, it could also pose problems for security—if you hear the meter ticking, you'll probably be less eager to install large operating-system updates and new virus-definition files.

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