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It's Getting Better, Bit by Bit

Despite the many ways connections can go awry on the Net, conditions are getting better. The process is so gradual, however, that the improvements may be too subtle to notice.

The fact is, the industry is trying to keep one step ahead of the ever-increasing demand for Internet services. So far, they're keeping pace. But increases in network capacity happen in fits and starts, rather than all at once. As a result, a faster, snappier Internet experience only happens in hiccups.

On average, however, the rate at which information flows through the Internet is improving steadily, as telephone companies, backbone providers, and individual Internet service providers (ISPs) install better equipment and use new technologies to squeeze more performance out of existing systems. The idea is to stay one step ahead of demand, as well as to prepare their systems to handle spikes of traffic. Those efforts apparently are paying off.

According to John Quarterman, president of Matrix Information & Directory Services of Austin, Texas, overall Internet lag has been falling steadily over the past year. However, spikes in Internet usage, typically between 3 PM ET until about 10 PM ET, slow down how the Internet performs all over the globe.

"You'll see a real drop in performance when it's afternoon on both the East and West Coasts. Fortunately, there aren't too many hours that's the case, so you can time your work," Quarterman said.

America Online's peak hours are a bit different from the Internet at large, in part because so many use the service from home. Matt Korn, AOL vice president of operations, claims that "rush hour" for AOL starts around 9 PM in each time zone, and persists into the evening.

To keep pace with this demand, AOL claims it has invested nearly US$500 million in building out its network to ensure it can handle the crush and then some. That investment was touched off early last year when the service suffered a number of email, newsgroup, and service outages.

To illustrate just how demand has grown, Korn notes that a year ago, AOL was "looking at delivering 6 million pieces of electronic mail per day to our members. Now we're up to 96 million pieces of email a day."

Written By Sean Wolfe. Graphic design by Dana Byerly

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