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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Congestion warning needed for the net
Traffic jam
Traffic alerts for the internet could be useful for users
Isn't it time we had proper alerts about technology problems, asks columnist Bill Thompson?

As a radio addict I often find myself with 5 Live burbling away in the background as I sit at my keyboard in the early morning, taking advantage of that first caffeine hit of the day to get some serious work done.

Every now and then the traffic report comes on, and I feel the smugness that comes from knowing I don't have to negotiate the M6 or fight my way across the roundabouts of Slough in order to get to work.

Yet from time to time I hit my own traffic jam, one that never makes it onto the drive time news.

A flashing green light on the cable modem means I'm cut off from the internet, unable even to check the network status page on my ISPs website.

Or I'll sit there for hours with no incoming e-mails because my provider has had yet another server outage, without even the odd spam message to reassure me that I'm still in contact with the wider world.

Polite messages

Sometimes services I rely on will simply be unavailable, and I'll be confronted with the Bloglines plumber, a polite message telling me I can't Twitter right now, or just an empty screen or stalled application.

Most of the time these problems last an hour or two, and their impact is relatively limited, but over the past few weeks some more significant network failures have left millions of people wondering whether they should depend quite so much on the network and its services.

On 16 August anyone who relied on using Skype to make low-cost phone calls over the internet found that their service was inaccessible, as the peer to peer network which moves data around fell over. It took a few days for normal service to be resumed.

And last weekend many users of Microsoft Windows Vista and XP discovered that their legally purchased and licensed copies of the operating system were flagged as pirated when the Windows Genuine Advantage servers stopped working properly.

Bill Thompson
Problems like this happen all the time, but we tend not to hear much about them.

In this case the "advantage" seems to have gone to those using cracked and pirated software, who didn't have to bother trying to contact the unavailable servers.

While these two were certainly the highest profile problems, they weren't the only ones.

Gamers were hit by unforeseen side-effects of the SecuROM copy protection scheme bundled with the PC version of the Bioshock game when the activation server went down, while over a million jobseekers who uploaded their CVs to the Monster job site were belatedly told that it had been hacked into and their personal information might have been stolen.

Inherently flawed

Just to add to the sense of collapse there have been reports that the iPhone has been cracked so that it can work on any available GSM network, that the Keeloq cipher used for many car keys has been broken, and that the Lithium-ion battery design that hundreds of millions of us rely on to keep our phones and laptops going is inherently flawed and needs a radical rethink.

The IT failures aren't happening just because it's summer and all the good systems administrators are on holiday - problems like this happen all the time, but we tend not to hear much about them.

Back in the Spring Microsoft announced that it was extending the warranty period on its Xbox 360 games console to three years after so many suffered complete hardware failure, one of many computing issues that affect far more people than the broken traffic lights on the A427.

Technology correspondents like Bobbie Johnson at The Guardian do a great job of getting coverage in the news pages rather than having these stories consigned to the cul de sac of the IT supplements.

Traffic reports

And of course, the key stories can be read about here on the BBC News website's Technology pages. But even the best news story doesn't have the useful detail that drivers have come to expect from traffic reports.

What we need isn't an interview with Skype's Niklas Zennstroem defending peer to peer networks but a report on which servers are down, when we can expect to see normal service resumed and what the alternatives are.

If drivers can be told about a diversion around the A14, why can't the network users be offered an alternative VOIP service for the day?

There is an online Internet Traffic Report that monitors network speeds and response times for major backbone networks, and this might indicate why US websites are slow one morning, but it doesn't go far enough for most of us.

And of course if your ISP is one of those affected, then being told to look online for information and advice is adding insult to injury.

For millions of people in the UK and the rest of the western industrialised world access to the internet is as important as a good route to work, but this is simply not reflected in the way news outlets deal with the topic.

It's time for some relevant, local and timely reporting on the state of the network and tech issues that might affect home and business computing.

And perhaps radio, a medium that is enjoying a rebirth in the network age with more than forty-five million people in the UK listening at least once a week, would be the medium to provide what we need.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.


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