Enter the maze

Why is your Internet so slow?

Cars in a tunnel: Copyright www.istock.com id 20499355

The Internet is now so much a part of life that, unless you are over 50, it's hard to remember what the world was like without it. Sometimes we enjoy really fast Internet access, and yet at other times it's frustratingly slow! So the question is why, and what does this have to do with posting a letter, or cars on a motorway?

The communication technology that powers the Internet is built of electronics. The building blocks are called routers, and these convert the light-streams of information that pass down the fibre-optic cables into streams of electrons, so that electronics can be used to switch and re-route the information inside the routers.

Enormously high capacities are achievable, which is necessary because the performance of your Internet connection is really important, especially if you enjoy online gaming or do a lot of video streaming. Anyone who plays online games would be familiar with the problem: opponents apparently popping out of nowhere, or stuttery character movement.

So the question is - why is communicating over a modern network like the Internet so prone to odd lapses of performance when traditional land-line telephone services were (and still are) so reliable? The answer is that traditional telephone networks send data as a constant stream of information, while over the Internet, data is transmitted as "packets". Each packet is a large group of data bits stuck inside a sort of package, with a header attached giving the address of where the data is going. This is why it is like posting a letter: a packet is like a parcel of data sent via an electronic "postal service".

But this still doesn't really answer the question of why Internet performance can be so prone to slow down, sometimes seeming almost to stop completely. To see this we can use another analogy: the flow of packet data is also like the flow of cars on a motorway. When there is no congestion the cars flow freely and all reach their destination with little delay, so that good, consistent performance is enjoyed by the car's users. But when there is overload and there are too many cars for the road's capacity, then congestion results. Cars keep slowing down then speeding up, and journey times become horribly delayed and unpredictable. This is like having too many packets for the capacity in the network: congestion builds up, and bad delays - poor performance - are the result.

They have been evaluating the impact of congestion in terms of real human experience

Typically, Internet performance is assessed using broadband speed tests, where lots of test data is sent out and received by the computer being tested and the average speed of sending data and of receiving it is measured. Unfortunately, speed tests don't help anyone - not even an expert - understand what people will experience when using real applications like an online game. Electronic engineering researchers at Queen Mary, University of London have been studying these congestion effects in networks for a long time, mainly by using probability theory, which was originally developed in attempts to analyse games of chance and gambling. In the past ten years, they have been evaluating the impact of congestion on actual applications (like web browsing, gaming and Skype) and expressing this in terms of real human experience (rather than speed, or other technical metrics). This research has been so successful that one of the Professors at Queen Mary, Jonathan Pitts, co-founded a spinout company called Actual Experience Ltd so the research could make a real difference to industry and so ultimately to everyday users.

For businesses that rely heavily on IT, the human experience of corporate applications directly affects how efficiently staff can work. In the consumer Internet, human experience directly affects brand perception and customer loyalty. Actual Experience's technology enables companies to manage their networks and servers from the perspective of human experience - it helps them fix the problems that their staff and customers notice, and invest their limited resources to get the greatest economic benefit.

So Internet gaming, posting letters, probability theory and cars stuck on motorways are all connected. But to make the connection you first need to study electronic engineering.