Why Is the Internet So Infuriatingly Slow?
Plus, two horrible things your Internet service provider wants to do to make it speedier.
Beyond that, capping data transfer is simply a crude way to get people to curb their data appetites. Imposing limits on gigabytes per month is as sensible as replacing speed limits with a total number of miles you can drive in a given day. A more reasonable scenario—though one that's still decidedly unfun—would be to charge for Internet access as we charge for cell phones, running the meter during peak hours and letting people surf and download for free on nights and weekends, when there's far less competition for bandwidth.
Plan Two: Blame BitTorrent. Category: Horrible later. In addition to capping data transfer, Comcast is taking a second anti-hog initiative. Rather than charging more, the company plans to slow or cut off peer-to-peer traffic during peak times. Last October, the Associated Press caught Comcast deprioritizing traffic from BitTorrent and other file-sharing protocols. The company received a slap from the FCC for singling out a specific type of traffic, which violates the FCC's policy statement on network management. Comcast now says it will pursue a more compliant strategy that slows the connections of power users during peak times without singling out specific types of traffic. This tactic is similar to the more general practice of "traffic shaping": prioritizing data packets for applications like video that shouldn't lag at the expense of something like e-mail, which can wait in line an extra few seconds without anyone noticing—except that it's deprioritizing users, not data packets. (People who hate the concept of traffic shaping prefer to call this "throttling" or "choking.")
This plan is "horrible later" because it fails to account for the natural evolution of the Web toward larger file sizes and higher bandwidth activities. While it isn't a God-given right to be able to downloaded pirated DVDs all day long, the ISPs should not adopt a long-term strategy that penalizes high-bandwidth activity. As FCC commissioner Robert M. McDowell pointed out in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, this is not the first time we've reached a crisis level of congestion. If Time Warner and Comcast had structured their networks around anti-bandwidth-hogging policies, say, 20 years ago, revolutionary services like YouTube and BitTorrent might not even exist.
Now let's take a step back and sympathize with the ISPs. On the one hand, power users and Web entrepreneurs brand them as anti-innovation for going after bandwidth hogs with regressive tactics. On the other, there are oodles of home users who get infuriated when it takes forever for a page to load in their browser. On top of that, they have to deal with net-neutrality advocates who often seem more interested in policing the ISPs than in proposing ways to fix our bandwidth crunch (though Columbia law professor and Slate contributor Tim Wu runs down some good possible fixes in this New York Times op-ed). So let's help the ISPs out and look at a few promising technologies that could help us all surf quickly and happily.
The high-fiber diet. If bandwidth demands do continue to scale, we could get to the point where anyone who wants a decent connection to watch a 100-gigabyte holographic movie—or whatever we're watching five years from now—will have to get a fiber-optic cable directly to their home. Verizon has bet on this solution with its FiOS service. These "fiber to the premises" connections are still very expensive and aren't yet widely deployed—and the commercials also make you want to retrofit your entire neighborhood with copper, just out of spite—but it looks as if they're only getting more necessary. (Some researchers believe that the same technology that may someday lead to invisibility cloaks might also be deployed to route fiber-optic signals through today's existing networks. That effort is fairly nascent.)
Cold, hard cache. Shortly before the start of the 2008 Olympics, some commentators feared the global network wouldn't be able to handle all the demand for streaming Web video. The fact that the Internet didn't "melt," as one ZDNet author feared, set tongues wagging about NBC's use of third-party "content-delivery networks." To deliver nonlive content, these companies can store popular content on many different servers around the country—a method of ensuring that data packets don't have to travel as far to reach their destination. In general, your machine will retrieve information much faster from a "nearby" server on the network than from one across the globe. If a copy of the movie you want is stored by your ISP on a local server, you'll both get it faster and hold up fewer people in the process. Just as NBC did, companies may need to turn to these content-delivery companies—essentially, large private networks—to help distribute both cached and live content. Still, it feels a little defeatist; taking customers off the public Internet is great for reducing congestion, but the fact that it's necessary is a problem we need to fix head-on, not work around.
Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.