Unmetered access could bring network problems

Network concerns surround last week's unmetered race

Britain's national telecommunications provider, BT (quote: BT), can give no guarantee that its network will cope with the predicted increase in traffic following the arrival of unmetered Internet access next month.

According to predictions from analyst firm Durlacher, the amount of time spent online by consumers is likely to triple when unmetered access is introduced. If consumers flock to the recent spate of unmetered offerings, that could lead to potentially serious network problems.

Durlacher Internet analyst Nick Gibson predicts that such an increase in Net use may place an unknown amount of strain on BT's network. "It's unclear how many ISPs will be signing up to BTs (Surftime II) service," he said, "but if one looks at California a few years ago, when there was a sudden rush for analogue Internet access and the exchange got clogged, this is certainly a potential worry."

Gibson is not alone in his concern. Gordon Owen, chairman of telco Energis, thinks problems are inevitable if the level of enthusiasm for unmetered, or its hybrids, is underestimated. "When someone like BT picks a £20 a month figure for Internet calls, which is about right politically, they are taking a gamble that the majority of time will be evenings and weekends when the network is not being used quite as much." He adds: "What they don't want to do is get 10 million customers spending 24 hours a day just leaving their computers switched on to the Internet, because the network will clog up and that will be a terrible mess. Telephone exchanges have a physical size. They can only carry so much traffic."

BT has looked at the prospect of next month's rush as Breath.net and LineOne go live with their respective unmetered offerings, but refuses to guarantee its "robust network" will handle the strain. "We can't guarantee that customers will not have problems," said a BT spokesman. "It depends on a number of things -- the number of ports an ISP has, the quality of modem and in some cases the grade of the line." The latter could, according to the spokesman, create problems in "outer regions", due to the quality of copper lines.

The spokesman did, however, claim that improvements made to BT's broadband infrastructure in October will ensure that this part of the network will cope with the expected upturn in Internet traffic.

But even if BT's network does cope, Durlacher's Gibson believes ISPs face two other significant problems. First, how many lines will an ISP allocate per user, and second, how much bandwidth or capacity will it require? "The concern for potential users is how fast access will be and whether they can actually connect," said Gibson.

Such predictions of imminent doom are not without derision, however. AOL, which trialled unmetered Internet access 18 months ago thinks any suggestions of network congestion is utter nonsense. "Network congestion is a red herring to be honest," said a spokesman. "The same argument was made against unmetered access in the US, and it wasn't true. BT must have accepted that there isn't going to be network congestion, or it wouldn't have announced its unmetered services."

Find out more about free Internet access in our Unmetered Access Guide.

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