Debate falls short online

Gridlock that followed the presidential debates draws attention to one of the Web's greatest weaknesses: insufficient bandwidth.

3 min read
Bob Dole ended his closing statement during Sunday's presidential debate by urging about 70 million voters to log on to his Web site, not knowing that Web gridlock would keep many of those users from accessing his site or several others devoted to candidate and debate coverage.

"If you really want to get involved, just tap into my home page," Dole said to the nationwide audience. And viewers did, so many that several sites dedicated to the debate, including Dole's, were jammed with users, leading to download delays that virtually closed down several sites.

The mixed results left some saying that Dole's reference to his Web site proves that the Internet has finally made its mark on mainstream America and others wondering if the technology is really up to dealing with being that popular.

Certainly, both theories are true. Dole's announcement to an audience of 60 to 70 million people shows his and perhaps the political establishment's growing acceptance of the Net as the communication medium of the future. Unfortunately, what is more likely to be remembered is the gridlock, which highlighted one of the Web's greatest weaknesses: insufficient bandwidth.

Observers characterized Dole's comment as the "biggest single ad in Internet history." At Dole's urging, hundreds of thousands of users went to tap the Dole-Kemp site, which receives an average of 150,000 to 200,000 hits a day.

The problem was that they all went at the same time. Despite an upgrade yesterday to the fastest server available through SurfNet--Dole-Kemp's Web management firm--the site was only able to accomodate 10,000 users at a time, according to Andrew Weinstein, director of media relations for Dole.

That meant for a lot of "time out errors." The traffic jam cleared at approximately 11:30 EST, one hour after the debate ended.

Weinstein doesn't believe the gridlock problems will have a negative impact on the campaign Web site. "Web users are savvy enough to understand that if they can't get in, they should check back in an hour or so," he said.

The Dole-Kemp site wasn't the only "victim of its own success" last night.

MSNBC's chat room and CBS News RealAudio feed were also ill-equipped to handle the traffic generated by the debate, according to one disappointed user who said he missed most of the debate because he spent so much time trying to log on.

The Hartford Courant also had some problems with its RealAudio coverage of the debate and has since posted a message to visitors. "Unfortunately, due to a server problem, we were only able to handle about 500 visitors at a time. For these of you who made it in, we hope you enjoyed it. For those of you who didn't (and, yes, I have heard from a few of you already), we'll do better next time."

To politicians new to the Internet and its bandwidth hazards, last night's online coverage may have seemed like a good first attempt for an imperfect but promising technology. But for many users, the whole episode was both frustrating and an unhappy reminder that the Internet may still not be ready for the attention of the mass public, at least not at one time.

"I logged on the Internet to check out the online debates. The excitement was building for the past couple of weeks," said one disappointed user. "But instead of learning about the candidate views, I learned that the Internet still isn't ready for prime time."

And some even questioned the wisdom of Dole promoting his Web site to an nationwide audience when less than half of the nation has access to the Net.

"I thought the announcement of the URL was stupid. Less than 20 percent of the viewers would know what it was," said one observer.

Others agree. "Bob Dole would have been more effective if he demonstrated the purpose of new technologies for young people and the role it will play in people's lives," said Mark Kuhn, Internet communication coordinator for the Commission on Presidential Debates. "At least when Bill Clinton talks about the Internet he talks about making it available to students in schools by the year 2000."