The Internet may be a superhighway to the big-picture people. To those who actually use it, it's a bumpy country lane.
Information searches are circuitous. Cyber-travel is slow. Merely loading the index page of a popular Internet site can take so much time that it's easier and faster to look up the information in a book. A few critics predict Internet traffic is growing so fast it will overload and crash the system.
Internet companies are scrambling to extend the information highway before that happens. In the past 10 days, three companies have announced the launching of a new technology that should eliminate one of the biggest bottlenecks of all. That will help, Internet experts believe, but in an ironic twist, it may generate so much new traffic that it will clog other Internet choke points.
The new technology is the cable modem, which can connect home computers to the Internet over a television cable. On Sept. 5, US West Communications said it would test cable modems in Omaha. A day later, the nation's largest cable company, Tele-Communications Inc., launched a similar service in Fremont, Calif. And on Tuesday, its chief rival, Time Warner Inc., debuted its version in Akron and Canton, Ohio.
"We'll see a lot more of these solutions happening," says Lisa Pelgrim, a telecommunications analyst at Dataquest, a technology research firm in San Jose, Calif. "Everybody's gotten stuck when they've been on the Internet." If you download data using the new technology, "you're now getting it as fast as the Internet itself."
Cable modems are more than 100 times faster than conventional modems because they use the wires of cable-television companies instead of telephone lines, which have lower data capacity. Theoretically, this should speed up cyberspace dramatically.
"The cable modem is a compelling method of access," says Don Dulchinos, director of business development at CableLabs, the research consortium of US cable-TV companies. "I fully expect it to get better than 50 percent of the market within a couple of years."
Telephone companies are developing a competing digital service that could be even faster. Either way, computer users should begin to move through the Internet as quickly as the computer network itself.
Unfortunately, the network is frustratingly slow in places. And with traffic building so rapidly, critics say those junctions will soon be overwhelmed.
"The Internet ... will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse," wrote Bob Metcalfe in a column last December. Mr. Metcalfe is highly respected within the computing community for his pioneering work in computer networking during the 1970s and '80s. The resulting failure, he says, will shake the on-line world to its core and, he hopes, bring reform to its haphazard management.
Other Internet experts acknowledge that the system occasionally loses electronic messages and gets backed up at certain junctures. Since the federal government turned over management of the Internet to the private sector, the network has been run by a loose confederation of sometimes bickering companies. But, they add, the system was designed to reroute information and get it through. "It's anarchy, but it's anarchy that works," says Mr. Dulchinos of CableLabs.
Questions remain as the new modems arrive. Will they merely make users more efficient, or encourage them to generate more Internet traffic? Will the new modems encourage new services, such as resource-hungry computer video, to clog the network further? No one knows, but many Internet experts are optimistic.
"It is not going to crash," adds Eric Aupperle, president of Merit Network Inc., a nonprofit organization in Ann Arbor, Mich., that receives federal funding to measure the Internet's performance. The group did raise red flags last spring, when peak traffic caused delays and data losses. But since then, the three major companies operating the high-speed Internet backbone, where much Internet traffic travels, have upgraded networks and eased congestion.
The largest of the three, MCI Communications Corp., is in the midst of upgrading its network for the second time this year. By the end of the year, the backbone will be able to handle 622 megabits of data a second - 14 times more than at the beginning of 1996. But the system will need another upgrade in the first half of next year because traffic continues to burgeon.
Since last December, MCI's backbone traffic has skyrocketed 3,000 percent. By June, it was carrying enough data each month to fill nearly 9 million sets of encyclopedias, and there's no slowdown in sight.
The company expects its profitable $100 million-a-year business to grow to $2 billion or more by 2000.