When The Web Gets Too Sticky

Remedies are emerging to speed Internet traffic--but none is perfect

The World Wide Web is too slow. Just about everyone who has ever used the Internet agrees on that. Most attention has focused on speeding up the "last mile," the link between homes and the net's high-speed backbone. Although plenty of remedies are in the works, the depressing news is that there's little prospect of widespread improvement soon for most of us. Worse, there are so many bottlenecks in the Internet that even a dramatic increase in modem speed, by itself, might not improve things much.

Web pages are the worst culprit. They consist of a large number of small elements that have to be downloaded one after another. The result is a bit like driving down a street with a stop sign at every corner--you can't build up any speed. After testing a variety of modems with the Net.Medic monitoring program from VitalSigns Software, I found that I rarely got sustained speeds faster than 40 kilobits per second when loading Web pages.

CRITICAL MILE. Much work is being done to speed performance, from faster servers to browsers that can download several Web page components at once. As the rest of the net speeds up, the last mile will become more critical. Three approaches are the best hope to provide the fast link to consumers: two-way cable, a telephone technology called digital subscriber lines (DSL), and satellite. All offer great potential, and all have big problems.

Two-way cable is great--if you can get it. Unlimited service costs around $40 a month for speeds of 250 kbps or more. But cash-starved cable companies are hard-pressed to upgrade their networks. If you get your cable TV from Comcast or from one of the cable services working with @Home Network, perhaps you can get Internet service via cable. The @Home service (www.home.net) is available from five cable companies in 16 U.S. markets. Otherwise, you're likely to be out of luck.

Availability also plagues DSL. This technology enables phone companies to handle digital signals more easily and efficiently, theoretically providing speeds of 2 megabits per second (2,000 kbps) or more over existing copper phone lines. Besides being four times faster than standard digital, or ISDN, DSL also should be much less costly. But so far phone companies have only run service trials. "DSL still has enough challenges that near-term deployment will be to businesses. It still isn't quite there," says Frank J. Wiener, vice-president and general manager of DSL products for Paradyne, a former AT&T unit that makes communications gear. On Nov. 18, Nortel and Rockwell Semiconductor Systems announced a new approach to one megabit consumer DSL that could make it much easier for phone companies to install.

"FILE'S DONE." Internet-by-satellite is available to anyone who can position an 18-inch dish with a clear view of the southern sky. I tried Hughes Network Systems' DirecDuo, which combines DirecTV and U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (USSB) television service with DirecPC. The service offers download speeds up to 400 kbps--and it delivers, especially on file transfers and big graphics.

But DirecPC is tricky to set up, partly because you have to supplement the satellite link--which downloads stuff from the Net--with a dial-up connection to send out such things as requests for a Web page or E-mail. An Internet service provider (ISP) is the required link, which adds more to an already expensive proposition. DirecDuo hardware, which also picks up TV programming, costs around $700, plus around $250 if you want the dish installed. Internet service plans range from $20 to $130 a month, plus another $20 or so for an ISP account. And beware: The setup may cause you problems if you need to dial into your office network.

Early next year, conventional modem makers will be pushing an innovation of their own to provide speeds of over 100 kbps over two conventional phone lines. Don't rush out to buy one, though. These modems layer a new, nonstandard technology on top of the current confusion caused by two incompatible 56 kbps standards.

In the short run, probably the best hope is speeding up the rest of the Net. Intel, for example, offers service providers a product called Quick Web that gives faster downloads in exchange for slightly lower graphics quality. ISPs are storing copies of popular pages on their own servers to ease the jams at popular sites. These steps, along with faster connections, will ultimately produce a much faster Web. Just don't expect it tomorrow.

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