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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Internet Choking Phone System

LOS ANGELES -- The unrelenting growth of the Internet computer network is severely straining the United States' telecommunications system, causing local phone service failures in some areas and perpetual "brownouts'' on the computer network.

"We're coming close to gridlock,'' says Amir Atai, director of network and traffic performance at BellCore. "It won't make a difference for the person who is already on-line, but what about the next user who is trying to make a 911 [emergency] call?''

The root of the telephone network capacity problem lies in the fact that Internet calls are far longer than the voice calls that the phone network was designed to handle. Pacific Telesis in the San Francisco Bay area's Silicon Valley found that an average Internet call was 20 minutes long, compared with four minutes for an average phone call. Ten percent of Internet calls were six hours or longer.

The peak hours for phone system usage also has switched to the 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. time period because of evening Internet use -- stressing networks designed around weekday calling peaks.

Pacific Telesis and the other regional Bell companies say there are no technical barriers to solving the capacity problems, but that antiquated regulations are making it uneconomical for them to do so.

Under guidelines established in the early 1980s, Internet service providers are exempted from paying the additional fees that long-distance companies pay local providers for calls that are transferred to another network. Silicon Valley's Netcom Communications, for example, pays the standard monthly business rate of $15 per line, despite the huge volume of calls flowing into its modem banks.

Those regulations were designed to protect online providers when the industry was in its infancy, and the local phone companies argue that they no longer apply. The Federal Communications Commission is expected to consider higher rates for Internet service providers before the end of the year.

But that would significantly alter the economics of the Internet, which has traditionally allowed users to reach people across the world for the price of a local phone call and a low monthly subscription fee.

Internet providers and computer industry lobbyists contend that the solution should be to implement new technology rather than simply expanding the traditional voice system and asking them to pay more for the same service.

"The only reason [new, high-speed] technologies like ADSL aren't being deployed is because the local phone industry isn't competitive,' says Paul Misener, telecommunications policy manager for Intel Corp.

Higher-speed technologies such as ADSL, or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Link, ISDN and T1 phone lines would divert Internet traffic away from the switched phone system and funnel it directly onto special data networks.