PSTN Meltdown? Don't believe the hype

Predictions of a U.S. telephone network 'meltdown' due to Internet traffic have been greatly exaggerated, according to a new study sponsored by a computer and data communications industry group. The study claims that the US public switched telephone network can handle the growing amount of Internet and other data traffic in the short term. Long term, however, the network will need to be improved with 'data-friendly' equipment to handle increased Internet and online service traffic.

Predictions of a U.S. telephone network "meltdown" due to Internet traffic have been greatly exaggerated, according to a new study sponsored by a computer and data communications industry group.

The study, conducted by Economics and Technology Inc. for the Internet Access Coalition, claims that the U.S. public switched telephone network can handle the growing amount of Internet and other data traffic in the short term. Long term, however, the circuit-switched network will need to be improved with "data-friendly" equipment to handle increased Internet and online service traffic.

"If the Bells don't want to do it, they should allow access to their systems to allow other people to do it," says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a Washington D.C.-based trade group, and co-chairman of the coalition. "Let a long-distance carrier come in, or a manufacturer ... or an Internet carrier."

The Internet Access Coalition is made up of computer hardware and software companies, including Apple Computer, IBM, Microsoft, Netscape Communications., and Oracle; service providers, including America Online, UUNET Technologies and GE Information Services; and trade groups, including the American Electronics Association and the Information Technology Industry Council.

The report aims to counter several reports by regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) and Bellcore suggesting that Internet traffic was jamming up the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Based on those studies, some RBOCs petitioned the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year to levy access fees on Internet and data service providers. Last month, however, the FCC recommended that Internet service providers remain exempt from the fees, while it looks for ways to create incentives for new services and systems that transport data traffic more efficiently.

The Economics and Technology study claims that RBOC reports exaggerated the congestion caused by Internet traffic, since they only looked at a handful of central office facilities that handle traffic from Internet service providers. The RBOCs could fix specific, point congestion problems with little extra cost, using current systems.

"If increases in on-line service traffic posed a significant threat to their networks, the BOCs would not be exacerbating the 'problem' by offering unlimited Internet access for a flat rate," the report states.

The RBOCs also gloss over the fact that Internet growth has been a financial boon for them, according to the study. In 1995, revenues from new data-related telephone lines alone brought in US$1.4 billion, six times what Bellcore's study said it would cost per year to upgrade the PSTN to handle Internet traffic, the study states. And since Internet traffic is heaviest at off-peak telephone hours, it uses network capacity that would otherwise be idle.

Long term, the limitations of the existing circuit-switched network could hold back the growth of the Internet and other online services, according to the study. It recommends wide deployment of data-friendly technologies - technologies that use the network resources when data is sent and received, not for the full length of the connection.

Ultimately, Miller said, Internet users will pay for improved service. But the first step is for the RBOCs, or someone else, to install updated systems.

"What we object to is the argument by the Bells that we, the Internet community, should pay more for what currently exists," Miller said.

The Internet Access Coalition can be reached on the World Wide Web at http://www.internetaccess.org/.

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