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September 27, 2002—In this special issue, Mark Minasi discusses the current state of high-speed Internet connectivity across the United States and the reliability of those connections.
In a 1999 Windows 2000 Magazine UPDATE Special Edition commentary, I expressed my concerns about the availability, or lack thereof, of high-bandwidth Internet connectivity. I commented at the time that I considered high-speed connectivity a "nice to have" feature but that eventually it would become a necessity, and that cities and towns that couldn't get high-speed Internet access would essentially become "e-ghost towns." I wondered at the time whether Internet providers would offer high-speed capacity only to areas with high concentrations of people, and whether an Internet-bereft town might become as irrelevant as some US towns became when the railroads bypassed them in the 19th century.
Since I wrote that commentary, many of you have written to share your thoughts about high-speed Internet access. In fact, at least a dozen of you said that one requirement when buying a new house was DSL availability at the house's location. So how well-connected are we, and how well is high-speed Internet access serving us?
The availability of high-speed access has grown more quickly than I expected. However, I estimate that nearly 20 percent of US households still can't get cable or DSL Internet access. That situation needs to change; getting fast bits to every household makes good economic sense.
High-speed Internet satellite dish technology isn't the ultimate solution, either. Any geosynchronous orbit-based system will have inescapable problems because of delays in round-trip transmission times, and the stock market's disillusionment with technology has made getting capital for launching satellites difficult. Readers who have two-way satellite dishes tell me that although download speeds are great, upload speeds are horrible, and bad weather can cut the service altogether. A small but growing number of ISPs offer wireless Internet service to remote areas, but the service isn't cheap--$100 per month in some cases. But at least the service is available.
Another large concern for high-speed Internet access is reliability. We seem to be able to keep a dial tone available to phones around the country, so why can't we do the same with Internet lines? If our phones were down as often as our Internet connections, there would be a booming business in smoke-signal equipment.
I pay nearly $1000 a month for business Internet connectivity, and it's offline about 3 percent of the time. Because of my remote location, that downtime doesn't surprise me; what does surprise me is how often large firms lose their connectivity.
What's the answer to unreliable Internet service? Competition, of course. Even in the middle of nowhere, I get calls from people offering to replace my ISP. "Sure," I respond, "give me a price for 256 routable addresses and about 1Mbps symmetrical speed." I can hear them happily scribbling away on the other end of the phone. Then I add, "Be sure to include your 'SLA' provisions."
The scribbling stops. "SLA?" they ask. "What's an SLA?" I explain that SLA refers to a service level agreement (i.e., How quickly will the company respond to a service outage? How few minutes will pass before I'm back online--guaranteed? Is the company's network operations center staffed 24 x 7?).
I know that some of you have SLAs with your ISP, but most of you don't. What if you were under attack from a zombie system trying to flood your Internet connection and you asked your ISP to block all communications from a particular IP address or port? Without an SLA in place, the ISP could take weeks to respond, and you would essentially be offline for that amount of time. Try to get something in writing about what you can expect from your ISP--but be prepared to pay for it. An ISP can legitimately charge a fee to guarantee better service.
Finally, I wonder whether we're entering the era of the Paternal Internet Service Provider (aka PISP). Cable modem Internet access came to my area recently, so I requested a few static IP addresses from my cable modem provider to use as a backup to my usual ISP and set up my Web and mail servers with an IP address from each network. I'm certain the cable company's service will go down regularly, but I'm hoping that Cox Cable (my cable modem provider) and Verizon Communications (my 97-percent-uptime frame relay provider) will develop network problems at different times (wish me luck).
I was stunned to discover that I can't perform standard Microsoft file sharing from a Cox address to a Verizon address. I ran a port scanner program on my system and discovered that Cox blocks the NetBIOS ports in the 13x range and the Server Message Block (SMB)/Common Internet File System (CIFS) 445 port. In other words, Cox made sure that I wasn't using a file server. Odd, I thought, considering I'm paying a fair amount of money for a business Internet connection. A Cox representative explained in dire tones that the company blocked those ports for my own good because "on port 445, people can see into your computer!" I explained to him that a terrific new technology called "passwords" can shield online systems from such scrutiny. He countered by saying that almost no one used passwords, so the cable company had to block these ports. I'm getting the ports opened, so this story will likely have a happy ending, but the whole conversation seemed surreal, like having a builder explain to me after finishing my house that he hadn't included a driveway because thieves could use a driveway to back their van up to my house and steal my stuff.
So perhaps in the future, we'll indeed all have high-speed Internet connectivity--but only on ports 25, 80, 110, and 443 (Web and mail).
Mark Minasi, Senior Contributing Editor, Windows & .NET Magazine, firstname.lastname@example.org
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