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The World Wide Wait: Why is it worse for some ISP's?

April 14, 2000

You may have noticed in some of the reviews on this site that some free Internet service providers are said to be slower, or have "sluggish downloads". Though the Internet as a whole can suffer from slowdowns that will affect you no matter who your ISP is, your ISP actually plays a large role in how fast you can view web pages.

There are many problems that can cause you to not get the full speed potential of your modem. In many cases, your phone company's lines won't support a 56K connection. In others, the wiring in your house may not be sufficient to carry a high speed dial-up connection. Often, though, your ISP may be the problem.

When you dial into an ISP, free or paid, you're connecting to a physical location which is near you, and usually a local call. The modem that answers your call is connected to the Internet via a shared high-speed connection. If every user connected to that shared connection were downloading a file at the same time, this connection would need to be quite fast. For example, if 100 users are connected, in order to avoid a bottleneck, the ISP would need to have a 5600Kbps connection (56Kbps x 100 users). In most cases, however, it's not necessary for an ISP to have a connection equal to the number of users times 56K, since few users are using the connection at the same time. Once you download a web page, it takes some time for you to read it before you need to get another one. This allows the ISP to have a slower (and cheaper) connection to the Internet. For example, if only 10% of the users are downloading a web page at once, and the other 90% are reading a page or composing an e-mail, the ISP's connection would only need to be 560Kbps (56K x 10 users).

Here's where the problem comes in. We'll use the same number from above, and say that 10% of the users connected are downloading at once. We'll leave the speed of the ISP's connection at 560Kbps, but we'll assume that 200 users are connected, instead of 100. So, 20 users are downloading at once (200 x 10%), and the speed of the connection is 560Kbps. That means that each user can only use 28Kbps of the Internet connection. If 300 users were online, each user would only be able to use 18Kbps of the ISP's connection. As the number of users increases, the speed each user experiences decreases.

For Internet providers that are growing quickly, they may not have the money to install a faster Internet connection, or they may not be able to have one installed quickly enough. As a result, each user will experience worse and worse service for every new user that signs up, or every existing user that connects. Generally, if you see very slow speeds with one ISP, you'll usually see the speeds decrease in the early evening or on weekends, since that's when most users log on to the Internet. (A recent study found that 9:37PM in each time zone is the most popular time to use the Internet.)

If you notice a slowdown, especially if it's consistent, find a new ISP. Don't blame your lack of speed on the World Wide Wait, and don't assume that there's nothing you can do about it.

If you're searching for a new free ISP, pay attention to the download speeds mentioned in the ISP ratings. If you're currently using a free ISP, please post your own review, or add a message to the message boards, and include your thoughts on your ISP's download speeds.

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