What's all this about the Internet "collapsing"?

by Sky Dayton,
Founder and Chairman, EarthLink Network, Inc.

You may have seen recent magazine and newspaper articles predicting the imminent "collapse" of the Internet due to excessive load and other problems. These articles cite recent outages at Netcom and AOL as proof. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of ethernet and now an industry columnist, has been prophesying a catastrophic collapse of the Internet in 1996. For some reason, Metcalfe is doing everything he can to promote his prediction, short of renting the Good Year blimp. Luckily, these "doomsday" predictions have little to do with the real state of the Internet.

What's really going on
The Internet, of course, is like a system of roads and bridges, all interconnected. Once you're on a particular road, you have access, via highways and other connection points, to any other road in the system.

Today, there are traffic jams at some points on the Internet's system of roads and bridges. But the statement, "The Internet is overloaded," is about as ridiculous as "America's roads are overloaded." Which roads? Where exactly?

Because the Internet is so little understood (especially by the press), traffic jams in particular places are taken as a generality for the entire network. The specific points where the network is jammed are not discussed much. Instead, the problem is being generalized to "the entire Internet". This is a fallacy.

The Internet has more bandwidth and more points of interconnection than it has ever had before. There are more Internet users, of course, but the average Internet experience today is worlds better than it has ever been. More engineering talent is focused on ensuring the Internet continues to grow than has been involved in any other communications industry in history.

Specific jams
Just like a system of roads and bridges, there are so many places a jam can occur, it is nearly impossible to point out all of them. There can be busy signals at a provider's POP (Point of Presence, the modem pool you dial into to connect to the Internet), not enough network bandwidth at a provider's POP, overload at the telephone company (calls don't even make it to the POP), overload at a NAP (Network Access Point, the place where networks meet to exchange traffic), or congestion and routing failure on a particular backbone.

Quite often, a popular Web site gets overloaded and becomes slow, which can also be equated to a "traffic jam". Proprietary networks such as AOL can also go down. Though this doesn't really have anything to do with the Internet, it is nonetheless lumped in by reporters who don't know any better.

All of these things can affect the Internet experience of a user in one way or another.

Yes, there are problems across the Internet at various times for various users on various Internet networks. But there is no overall "collapse" of the Internet. If there were an automobile traffic jam in Washington D.C. and in Los Angeles at the same time, would it then be accurate to say, "All of America has catastrophic traffic jams"? No. There would be two specific situations, and you would probably laugh at the reporter who tried to generalize these into a nationwide catastrophe.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of understanding about the Internet, and due to journalists' natural tendency toward sensationalism, few people are describing the specific, real problems on the Internet.

What EarthLink is doing about it
Besides having our heads screwed on straight and telling it like it is to anyone who asks, there are many things EarthLink is doing to prevent the kinds of traffic jams mentioned above.

  1. EarthLink doesn't rely on one particular national network. We currently supply our customers with dial-in access via our own network here in California and UUNET's network everywhere else. We have just contracted with PSINet to add another 230 POPs to our network. Between these three, we have the largest, most reliable Internet network in existence. This means EarthLink is able to provide alternate POPs when POPs in a particular location get congested. This means fewer busy signals for our customers.

  2. All of EarthLink's POPs have plenty of available bandwidth to our networks. This means that EarthLink provides a wide "pipe" from the modems you dial into to EarthLink's Internet networks. Most often, our POPs are connected to the rest of a particular network via T3 (45 Megabit) lines, the largest pipes widely available. EarthLink's customers rarely experience a bottleneck getting to the network from the POP they're dialed into.

  3. EarthLink's customers are dialing into private networks. Whether they are ours, UUNET's or PSINet's, these networks are owned and controlled by EarthLink or by EarthLink's partners. Our customers' packets (units of bits, or information being transmitted) travel on these private networks for as long as possible before being handed off to other Internet networks we don't control.

    In contrast, many local ISPs, though their customers dial into their own, local POPs, immediately hand off their customers' packets to public networks run by companies such as MCI and Sprint. Whereas the packets of EarthLink customers could traverse the world without leaving one of our networks.

  4. EarthLink has more interconnect points than anyone. Between EarthLink, PSINet and UUNET, we are interconnected at every NAP or other important interconnection point on the Internet. This means that if a customer's packet has to leave our network to get to another network, it will happen at the closest interconnect point providing the best performance and routing around potential jams.

  5. EarthLink has a world-class technical staff ensuring our server-based services, such as mail, news, Web and others, grow ahead of demand. We cannot control the response time of servers other than ours, but we can do a good job ensuring our own servers keep up with demand.

    Because of these points, EarthLink is uniquely positioned to keep up with the demand of the growing Internet community and to predict and avoid trouble areas.

    Other Internet service providers have made different choices about how to utilize their resources and are subject to isolated problems much more readily than we are. Netcom's customers, for example, are all dialing into Netcom's single network. These customers' Internet experience is limited to Netcom's ability to grow and manage their network. If Netcom can't keep up, their customers suffer.

    Overall, however, the Internet community and the vast engineering resources behind it are finding solutions to the challenges facing the network. As it continues to grow, the Internet will be stronger and healthier than ever before.

The Internet's continued high-speed growth creates a challenge to stay ahead of demand. Frequently, this results in isolated traffic jams at particular points on the Internet network. Overall though, the Net is healthier than it's ever been, providing a positive experience for more users than ever.

When talking about problems on the Internet, we must deal in specifics: specific problems, who they affect specifically, and how they can be handled. Generalities born out of misinformation and sensationalism do everyone a disservice. Not only do these generalities fail to describe real issues, they focus attention away from what we are all trying to do: expand the Internet's resources to fulfill the potential of this amazing global communications medium.

EarthLink is positioned to predict and keep up with new Internet demands. Our goal is to give our customers the best possible Internet experience. We are working very hard to ensure this continues.