Overloaded phone lines threaten to bring down the Internet. A few solutions to the crisis

The information superhighway promised to be cheap, reliable, and universal. But the way things are going, it looks like it's going to fail on all three counts. In fact, I predict that one day we'll look back on the mid-1990s as the golden era of the Internet, when access was cheap and service was, well, mostly reliable.

The rush of people flocking to the Internet is laying siege to a telephone system that was never designed to handle data calls. The low flat rates charged by the phone companies and the Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot cover the insatiable hunger for phone lines. There are already signs that ISPs cannot keep up with demands for their services. Some networking experts, such as Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, believe that "an Internet meltdown" is inevitable and point to several recent failures to back up the claim.

Last August, America Online stranded its 6 million customers for 19 hours in a service blackout. In November, AT& T WorldNet Service "lost" E-mail messages sent by 200,000 subscribers because of a server problem. Other, smaller ISPs have experienced similar problems. These kinds of failures are likely to increase.

Of more concern are the logjams in the phone service that subscribers use to access their service providers, which will be a daily problem for everyone for years to come. Five years ago, getting a circuits-busy signal on a local call was rare. But last summer, during peak hours of Internet use, San Francisco-based Pacific Telesis Group alone had to turn away 16% of all calls at its switching center in Silicon Valley. Current phone systems were designed so that 10% of all phones could be in use at any given time. And phone rates have been regulated on the assumption that the average voice call lasts three to four minutes and that the average phone line is in use less than an hour a day. Internet use is vigorously challenging those assumptions. The average Internet session lasts 22 minutes. Many people stay connected to the Internet for hours--even days--at a time, dramatically limiting the number of lines available. In order to avoid the after-school rush on their ISP, some kids log on in the morning and stay connected while they're at school so that they can get back on quickly in the afternoon to check their E-mail. With flat-rate phone and Internet services, these practices cost nothing to users, but they strain the system immeasurably.

In the short run, local phone systems will need a far greater capacity. Price estimates for a three-year upgrade begin at a half-billion dollars nationwide for new lines and electronic switching systems. But who will pay? The phone companies argue that they shouldn't have to, because their regulated prices are based on voice calls. And the Internet providers don't want to lose the great deal they have. In the 1980s, the Federal Communications Commission exempted ISPs from paying for their use of local phone lines, the way long-distance phone companies do, in order to encourage the new industry. And whenever local phone companies have tried to add a surcharge for modem use to their bills, consumers have been so outraged that the fee has been dropped.

In the long run, several technological developments should limit the busy signals. A standard phone line or even an ISDN line is an inefficient way to send and receive data. Data usually travels in short bursts, or packets, with long intervals of no activity while the user is, say, reading Web pages or composing E-mail. Most of the time, the phone line sits idle. With packet-switching technology, a line remains open to the user only when he or she is sending a packet of data; the rest of the time, the line is free. The Internet's "backbone"--the huge lines that connect regions around the world--are packet-switched lines, but the maze of phone lines that connect people's homes or offices to the backbone aren't. In a few years, however, the phone companies should be able to detect when Internet users are sending data and route the data off standard phone lines directly onto packet-switched lines.

More relief will come from the likely fragmentation of the Internet in the next year or two. Unreliable service has driven a group of universities and research laboratories to consider setting up a separate "Internet II." Freed from the chaos of the original Internet, a separate system would guarantee the bandwidth necessary for audio and videoconferencing, without delays. All at a price, of course. But the price barrier will do away with logjams by keeping the number of users manageable. The problem is, parallel systems will also do away with the idea of universal access to an unlimited information superhighway even before it arrives.

Cary Lu connects to the Internet from the Seattle area.