Posted on August 16, 1998 at 6:11:08 PM Central.

The High-Bandwidth Blues

What's the only thing worse than slow, unreliable Internet access? I've come to the conclusion that it's fast, unreliable Internet access.

Let's say you're living at an apartment complex. No, let's not. I live at an apartment complex. I'm not going to name it, because this really isn't about them. Because this apartment complex is run by smart, forward-thinking people (I've met them), it offers cheap, direct Net connectivity to its residents. However, these people know how to run an apartment complex, which isn't really applicable to running a network, so they contract out their Net access to a local wannabe-telephone-company.

The local wannabe-telephone-company knows how to succeed in this business. They have a T1 from whatever real-phone-company building they're renting rack space in to the apartment complex and Ethernet connecting all the apartments to the router. Since this wannabe-telephone-company only charges me $25/month, it must be optimized to reduce customer support. So they use DHCP to completely automate network administration. When I moved in, I plugged in my Mac, turned on DHCP, and I was surfing the Net seconds later. It worked just as well for NT. No need to even call tech support. It's so fast; I've downloaded things at 100K/s.

They don't even have any servers located at the apartment complex. While it would reduce utilization on their T1 to have a DHCP and DNS server close to the users, this would require a whole server for each apartment complex that they serve. Instead, they run everything off of one or two systems at their main office.

Normally, no one would be able to tell the difference. Except I can tell the difference, because there are inexplicable stretches of, say, six hours when I can't even ping the router that is on the same Ethernet segment that I'm on. I guess most people wouldn't really worry about not having DNS when they don't have any connection to the outside world, but it bothers me.

I won't attempt to explain why there are multi-hour stretches when I am connected to the Net but still have no DNS, because I can't think of anything that would cause all three of the wannabe-telephone-company's DNS servers to not respond at the same time. I also won't dwell on luxuries like DNS when more important commodities are in short supply, like IP addresses.

Since most college students wouldn't really know what to do with their own T1, my Internet service is marketed at former AOL users. I find the part of the marketing brochure that explains that it isn't possible to connect multiple computers to the same Ethernet jack especially humorous. The average user has Windows 95 (actually, that's the only OS that my wannabe-telephone-company thinks can actually work with their service) and only uses it to check their Hotmail, occasionally browse porno Web sites, and play Quake deathmatches, the DHCP lease time is set at about four hours. In case you aren't subject to the whims of DHCP on your network, that means that if your computer is off or crashed for more than two hours, when you turn it back on it has a different IP address. Also, since the DHCP server which hands out IP addresses is on the other side of the T1, if that is down for more than two hours not only do you lose your IP address, but you can't get another one, so your computer limps along with no IP address at all until the connection comes back up. But most people don't really need fixed IP addresses anyway; that's what ICQ is for.

I found it astonishing that the agreement that I have with my wannabe-telephone-company doesn't prohibit me from running server software on my computers, or even Linux, since I'm used to hearing about the regulations that the UT dorms have about which software you can run on your own computer while it is connected to their network. The theory that seems most likely to me is that this wannabe-telephone-company is so cheap on system administrators that they haven't analyzed their network to see what people actually try to use it for and thus don't outlaw something that they don't even know about. There's no reason for anyone under the age of 25 to be running a server anyway, since it would just be used for trading porn, illegally-copied MP3s, and illegally-shared proprietary software. As anyone who has been in the Net business for very long knows, those three activities consume most of the bandwidth on the Internet.

You might think that I have no right to complain. After all, having my Net connection not work for a few hours out of every day is actually more reliable than getting busy signals all the time from a dial-up ISP. And when it does actually work, it's incredibly fast. And I'm only paying $25/month for it, which is less than $20/month for a dial-up account plus $25/month for a dedicated phone line. But consider the only other way to get the same amount of bandwidth, which is to rent my own personal T1 from a reputable ISP, which would cost around $1,000/month. If ADSL if offered in my area, I might actually be able to get it for the low cost of around $600/month.

My choice is between dirt-cheap Net access that is unreliable and unsupported and buying a leased line. If there's anything in-between, I haven't heard of it. What I truly can't understand is why this is the case, since I think there is a large market for individuals (not businesses) who need fast, well-supported Internet access. Forcing them to either join the AOL crowd or start robbing banks to afford Net access is very poor positioning on the part of wannabe-telephone-companies everywhere.

Have the bandwidth blues got you down or did you bite the teleopoly bullet? I invite your feedback.

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