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Net jams hinder faster connections

The performance of next-generation devices such as 56-kbps modems is being sharply limited by the strained capacity of the Internet, according to a new study.

Like a Ferrari stuck in a traffic jam, the performance of next-generation online communications devices such as 56-kbps, cable, or satellite modems is being sharply limited by the strained capacity of the Internet and its inability to respond to peak load conditions, according to a study released today.

Although the findings come from a company that makes money selling software to identify such performance problems, they seem to support an increasing number of anecdotal reports coming from businesses and home users alike as Internet use explodes.

A recent survey by Keynote Systems showed that Web documents traveled through the Internet at average speeds of 5,000 characters per second, or 40 kbps--more slowly than these new, widely touted 56-kbps modems. In addition, most users may see slower speeds because the Keynote measurements were taken over T1 or T3 lines from locations only one or two "router hops" away from a Net backbone, the company said.

The study also showed that performance depends on local Net traffic conditions and users' geographic locations. It found, for example, that users in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, and Kansas City, Missouri, areas tended to experience slower performance than users in other areas accessing the same Web site.

The company calculated the true speed of the Internet based on more than 3.6 million performance measurements made during a six-week period in August and September. It measured page-download times of 10,000-character files via HTTP from Web sites on 34 Internet backbones to 30 measurement locations in major metropolitan areas throughout the United States.

On November 4, the company will release a ranking of U.S. and Canadian backbone providers based on their measurement performance.

"Even though your car can go 65 miles per hour on multilane freeways, your average speed during rush hour will be far slower," said Jim Barrick, chief executive of Keynote Systems in a statement. "On the Internet, rush-hour conditions occur all the time."

To illustrate the congestion during peak periods, Keystone said its weekly index measuring Web performance deteriorated during the week that Microsoft shipped its latest browser, Internet Explorer 4.0, because so many people were downloading the product off the Web, causing slowdowns. (See related story)

To improve performance, the efficiency of the network has to be increased at "peering points," many experts agree. In addition, more caching technology has to be adopted to speed delivery of Web pages.

Internet providers say they aren't standing still. UUNet and MCI Communications, among others, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their networks. In addition, companies such as Intel, Inktomi, and Cisco Systems are introducing data caching technologies.

Intel, for example, announced a technology trial last month to speed up the delivery of graphically rich Web pages. Next week, Inktomi will announce the launch of a network cache product dubbed Traffic Server that it contends is among the fastest, most scalable cache for the market.