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Tuesday, 29 August, 2000, 16:52 GMT 17:52 UK
Faster than a speeding modem
giant tortoise
Will a fast web link go as slow as a tortoise...
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Web experts are warning that a broadband link to the internet may not mean that surfing speeds are always better.

They say so many people will be sharing each fast link that, at the busiest times, congestion could slow speeds to a crawl.

The way that the web is wired also means that congestion elsewhere on the net could slow the speed that data reaches you, warn the experts.

As a result many people may be disappointed that their high-speed link suffers the same problems as their old, slower modem.

High-speed hurdles

This week BT and Freeserve unveiled plans to offer broadband surfing services using Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line technology.

Embarrassingly on the day that BT made its announcement the website for its BTOpenworld service was out of action.

ADSL boosts the speed that data travels over your copper phone to a maximum of 6 megabits per second. Unfortunately, BT and Freeserve customers won't be surfing at this speed.

A hare yesterday
or as fast as a hare?

Initially they will be limited to 250-500 kbps - faster than a 56 kbps modem but not as fast as some might expect. The average surfing speed will improve but many consumers may be disappointed that it is not faster all the time.

At busy times customers may be lucky to achieve the speeds being advertised. ADSL customers will be sharing their broadband link with up to 50 other people so, in the early evening or at weekends, congestion may reduce these speeds even more.

While BT, Freeserve and other companies offering ADSL can boost speed by sharing links among fewer people, they can do nothing about the many other factors that slow the speed with which data travels across the net.

Data gets to you from a website by being split up into small packets and then sent via any number of routes to your computer where it is reassembled.

Day-to-day data delay

Often websites that look whole to you are assembled by gathering adverts, images, text, video and audio clips from many different hosts.

Congestion on the net delaying the packets of data for any elements of the page can mean the whole thing takes a long time to appear in your browser.

Steve Caplow, a vice president at RSW Software which helps companies tune websites to load quickly, says this problem is only going to get worse as broadband connections proliferate.

"When the consumer has a slow internet connection it takes the pressure off the website because the consumer is the limiting factor," he said.

Slow surfing speeds mean that people have low expectations and are happy to wait for pages to arrive, said Mr Caplow.

Last year a report by market analysts Zona Research found that people with slow net connections will wait 8 seconds for a page to load before hitting the escape key and trying another site.

But, said Mr Caplow, as broadband becomes more common, consumers will be less tolerant of any delay and the the 8-second cut off will likely shrink.

Mutimedia matrix

As websites start to exploit broadband connections by using audio and video they may struggle to serve pages up fast enough, he said.

Already many companies are using companies such as Jyra to find out where the bottlenecks are and what is stopping data getting to those viewing their site.

"Most of the websites today are not optimised for the fact that there is going to be a huge take-up of broadband," said Joe Frost of Inktomi which helps companies speed data around the web.

Congestion in the low-bandwidth portions of the internet is likely to get worse as more people put multimedia clips on their websites.

He likened the situation to having a fast car but only being allowed to drive it on roads with very low speed limits.

Many web companies are now starting to distribute video clips, audio files and animations to computers sitting much closer to consumers in a bid to cut the time it takes them to arrive, said Mr Frost.

While the core of the internet runs at very high speeds, at the edges, where most consumers join up, links are slow and there is little management of the data travelling over them.

Now Inktomi, AOL and other web companies such as Adero, Digital Island and Exodus are forming the Content Bridge Alliance that will develop technologies that ensure data reaches consumers as quickly as possible and they know where it is going.

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