Traffic Congestion on the Information Highway, redux

A while back, we wrote about difficulties getting a clear wireless channel when traveling, interference between motels and truck stops, time limits on sessions, etc. We also noted similar issues with DSL, and suspected that the providers have either oversold the capacity or exceeded the limits of the infrastructure.

A few months ago, we had a flurry of DSL session disconnects, which resulted in frequent changes to our WAN IP address. Not normally a big deal, but, since we depend on getting access to our office computers when on travel, it was huge. At the time, $ISP suggested our modem was at fault, and we sprung some of our precious computing budget for a new one. Funny thing, the connection improved before we got the new one installed. But, frequent resets still happened, so we wrote and installed a script that queried the router once an hour, parsed out the address, and posted it to our outside web server.

A couple of weeks ago, the troubles came back. This time, $ISP offered to sell us a static IP address, which solved the problem of getting into the system from outside, but the resets became so frequent and transfer rates slow slow between that it was impossible to connect to a remote computer, download a file, or even read mail. Of course, weekends, when tech support is not available, are the worst, so we took the time to take some measurements and do some tests on our own network and equipment.

Because the throughput speeds and connection times varied so widely between normal in early morning to effectively dead in the evening, we concluded that the problem was not in our network, house wiring, or anywhere except in the greater phone system. So, after the usual fumbling handoff from the standard help desk service to more technical expertise, we finally got admission from $ISP that they had, indeed, grossly over-committed the capacity and were in process of bringing back Twenty-first Century technology to our fair city, after subjecting us to weeks of 1991-era data transfer speeds.

During this outage, our data rates, on a nominal 7Mbps DSL connection, dropped from the expected 5.5Mbps to 20Kbps, about the same as the 19,200baud modem we bought in 1993. Except, in 1993, $ISP didn’t drop the connection every two minutes, so our actual data rate in 2011 has been closer to the 2400-baud rate of 1991, before we upgraded to 9600 baud. In those years, we used UUCP (Unix-to-Unix CoPy) to fetch email from a Unix server in Seattle, long-distance (nationwide flat-rate plans were not available then). All of western Washington was area code 206, but long distance rates applied from town to town. There was no World Wide Web, but you could chat with other computer users and look up information through dial-up bulletin boards and commercial services like CompuServe and America On Line (AOL).

The arrival of the Internet in the mid-1990s brought a crisis in the phone system similar to the current one, as service providers ordered hundreds of lines to connect dial-up users to the Network, and computer power users ordered second phone lines for their computers. Crews could not dig trenches and lay cable fast enough to stem the tide. There was no relief until fiber optic trunk lines and the phone system turned from point-to-point analog connections to the digital packet-switched network we have today. And then came DSL. The phone companies pushed out fiber further and further to make high-speed over copper possible in those last few hundreds of meters, but clearly should have figured on having the capacity used up quickly, after two decades of unceasing growth.

Interestingly enough, while shopping around for alternatives to what is essentially an unusable service, I see that the same $ISP who is telling me they’ve grossly oversold their capacity but are putting in new capacity to correct it is–at the same time–selling even faster services to accommodate the growth of on-demand audio and video and evermore detailed on-line games, which will quickly use up the new circuits supposedly put in place to fix the current overload. And so it goes. All this leaves me wondering how long after the service level I pay for has been restored will it be before the information highway once again becomes gridlocked.