The story behind your Internet connection speed

In a Nov. 5 letter to the editor, a disgruntled Netflix movie fan berated the Ashland Fiber Network for slow performance.

While it's not my responsibility to stand up for the City of Ashland, which certainly is in dire need of being held accountable for a plethora of reasons, I feel it best that someone not connected to the city respond. As a reasonably respected authority on technology and a user of AFN services, I have, and continue to have, my differences with city management of its networking services. However, I have had very little basis for complaints as to its efficacy or customer service.

To stream a movie into your home, a direct connection must be made from a Netflix server to your cable modem, and that connection must be maintained relatively continuously, because the massive amount of information required to show a movie in any sort of acceptable resolution can only be delivered in real time over even the 7 megabit connection. To get some idea of the load this places on the Internet, you must multiply this requirement by many thousands of simultaneous viewers. In their defense, most people haven't a clue as to how the Internet works, so they believe the propaganda that Netflix provides them to be true, and because most consumers lack technical knowledge, it's easy for Netflix to unfairly redirect customer complaints away from themselves, the real offenders.

All Internet service providers advertise connection rates, but none of them can guarantee them under any circumstances, because the Internet is not a static thing. Think of it like the power company delivering electricity to your home.

On an early summer day, you need no heat or air conditioning; it's beautiful outside. Your TVs, stereos, lights, etc., are off because you are outside enjoying the gorgeous weather. So are most other people. Power consumption is at a minimum in a system designed for much more — we could say that bandwidth consumption is low. Now switch to late July. It's hot — you, all your neighbors and all businesses have the air conditioning running. It's dinner time. While lots of people are out at the barbecue, most are using the electric stove, vent fan, kitchen lights, etc. The refrigerator and freezer are running — maybe an electric ice cream maker is plugged in. The stereo is on and probably the computer and TV as well. Dark! Then flash! Dark again. Blink. Blink. Dim light, then slowly everything starts working again.

You have just experienced bandwidth exceeded, which resulted in a momentary total loss of power followed by a short brown out (limited bandwidth) and finally, as some of the load did not come back on following the power system failure, a reasonable restoration of electrical service. In short, because of economic reality, there is just enough "poop" in the system to supply every household with power during a normal maximum seasonal peak demand. Somewhere in the system, somebody turned on one too many stoves, air conditioners or whatever, and the total system load was exceeded. Automatic breakers in place to prevent things like fires and explosions were tripped and, presto, no juice.

The Internet also has an overall capacity, or bandwidth limit. Locally, where AFN has some ability to manage that capacity, it is actually quite high most of the time. From my house in Ashland, I have measured rates within AFN and even the Rogue Valley as high as 9.1 mb, which is pretty good, especially considering that I have AFN's 7 mb service. One evening, my connection to San Francisco peaks at about 6 mb, but to Boston it is barely 2 mb, and that is when most of the East is asleep! Now, maybe if all of those Netflix viewers in the Midwest and West would just be happy with the paltry couple hundred cable/satellite channels they can access, or a nice DVD, none of which require individual high bandwidth Internet capacity sucking connections, I could get 9.1 mb to Boston as well!

Direct delivery of personally selected real time high bandwidth material over the Internet is consumptive excess. Expecting it to work as well as high definition over satellite/cable is foolishness, at best.

Solving this dilemma puts the load where it belongs, on Netflix and its customers. Netflix must place hundreds of computers, known as caching servers, in all of the Internet nodes through which they send their programming. These servers should be fed through a satellite or optic cable system independent of the Internet and capable of simultaneously processing the hundreds of programs that customers are likely to request at any given time. (After all, they do advertise that you can get any program you want at any time.) These servers would then directly distribute a selected program to the local connection requesting it. These servers would have the capacity to store (cache) large numbers of viewed programs, eliminating the need to continuously pull them over their entire distribution system.

An ISP providing the prodigious amount of local bandwidth that one of these servers would require could then asses a fair fee for carrying this burden, based on their bandwidth consumption. The viewer would then actually receive fulfillment of the Netflix promise. Of course, that customer would then have to bear his share of the true cost of delivery of Netflix programs, probably raising rates so high that he cancels his subscription. At least then the rest of us wouldn't have to subsidize his excess.

Tom Garson operates Aural Technology and Lithia Sound in Ashland. An early subscriber to the Ashland Fiber Network, he assembles, configures and maintains his own computers. He has lived in Ashland since 1975.

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