MICHUSA Frequently Asked Questions
- Why is my connection slow at times?
Slow connections are a very complex matter. There are so many variables that it is nearly impossible to find the answer. There are, however, some things which we think you should know about the nature of the Internet and about the way all modems behave that might give you some insight. There are also some things you can do, using common utility programs, to see for yourself what is going on with your connection.
HOW DOES MY COMPUTER COMMUNICATE OVER THE INTERNET?
When you are 'online' your computer is sending a constant stream of little 'envelopes' of data, called "packets". It also receives these packets from whatever site you may be looking at. A packet is like an individual letter in the US Postal Service system. Just as the USPS exists to handle those letters, the internet exists to handle these packets.When a packet is created it carries an address, just like an envelope. It also has, as part of its label, a code which the receiving modem can use to determine if it is receiving the data accurately. When the receiving system compares the contents of the packet to that code, it reviews the information to find out if the packet contains the same data that was originally sent. If the data appears to be different, the packet became corrupted en route. If it was corrupted then the receiving modem asks the sending modem to resend that particular packet. This process continues until it finally receives the proper contents, at which point it replies to the sending modem, in effect, "I GOT IT!" and the sending modem then sends the next packet. The whole process is repeated, over and over, until all the packets are successfully sent or until the modems sort of 'give up in frustration'. (Just like people on a bad phone connection can get tired of shouting at each other and hang up).
WHAT DOES THE MODEM DO?
It is the modem that actually sends or receives a packet over the phone line. A 28.8 modem (i.e. one capable of sending up to 28,800 bits of data per second, or about 2,800 bytes, since it takes 10 bits to create a byte on a modem) will send, assuming a good connection, about 7 packets a second (these are very rough averages, for the purpose of discussion only). Each packet contains about 3,500 bits of data (350 bytes), on average. A byte is what is needed, by the way, to create one character of print, or one letter of our alphabet. How fast the modem is able to send is a function of the status of the entire route that the packet must travel to the receiving modem. How clean are the lines? How far must they travel? What is the condition of the switches and routers that the packet must pass through? How busy is each of these components at the instant that packet is trying to get through?, etc. In comparison, as the holiday rush at the post office can slow down delivery of regular mail, the internet rush every evening (which is, by the way, the busiest time for the internet) can slow down the packet speed. Modems are also constantly 'talking' with each other in a sort of secret language that you can't see. Much of this 'talk' is about whether or not the packets are becoming corrupted en route. When too many packets seem to be corrupted the modems 'agree' to slow down. If the packets are still becoming corrupted, the modems agree to slow down even more. Modern modems are less patient than the older ones (which would stay connected right down to 300 bits per second, or 300 baud, and continue to plod along) and are prone to 'give up in frustration' at speeds below about 19,200 (assuming a 28.8 or 33.6 modem that is), resulting in virtually slamming the phone down on each other!
HOW CAN I TELL HOW FAST MY MODEM IS SENDING PACKETS?
Simple question. Seems like there ought to be a simple answer, right? We think so too, but there isn't. Sorry.Most of our users use Windows95 and we will use that system as the example here.When you first log on to the net Windows95 shows you a "connect speed". Commonly that is 24,000 or 26,400 or 28,800 (bits per second, or 6-7 packets per second). You need to know that Windows95 is quite limited in what it can show you about your modem speed. All it CAN show you is the SLOWEST of either your transmit or receive speed AT THE FIRST BURST it detects and that is the speed you will ALWAYS see on the screen during that particular session on the internet. Keep in mind that the modems are in fact always talking with each other about whether they should slow down or speed up (the modem transmission will speed up if the packet transmission is successful). You just can't see it because Windows95 lacks the ability to show that to you. (Here, at Big Net, we have some modems that show the transmit/receive speed and we can sit here and watch the speeds go up and down during any connection, especially when we go to a different site.)
OK, BUT ISN'T THERE SOME SOFTWARE OUT THERE WHICH WILL SHOW MY MODEM SPEED AND WHERE CAN I GET IT?
While there are some programs that purport to do this, our experience is that they are not very accurate and waste memory & resources. We are not the ultimate authority here and if you find one that works for you then more power to you! What DOES work is an external modem with an LCD readout that shows you the transmit and receive speeds. They are quite a bit more expensive than the common modems though. One brand that gives an LCD readout are the Supra modems.
WHAT ELSE CAN I DO TO CHECK SPEED?
One thing you can do is to download a file and check to see how fast the file comes in. This suggestion has its limits though since those addresses and labels that each packet carries are not even counted by the software which tells you about the arriving data. It only counts the contents of the packet and, depending on packet size (which varies), that labeling may be a significant part of the volume of data your computer is receiving. As a result, you are generally receiving something more than the screen is telling you.When you are downloading, the screen usually measures the data volume in Kilobytes (K) per second. Therefore, if you are receiving data at 2.7K per second, 2,700 bytes of data is being received (omitting the labels!) each second. Keep in mind that a byte is equivalent to 10 bits (on your hard disk, a byte is 8 bits. A modem adds a bit at each end of a byte, for control reasons, making a "modem byte" equal to 10 bits). Therefore, you are, in fact, receiving 27,000 bits of data at 2.7K. A 28.8 modem is theoretically capable of just 28,800 bits transmission or receive data which is the practical limits of a 28.8 modem. (Yes, at times you may receive at speeds that seem to be over the limit of your modem. It gets too technical to explain but it can happen to a certain degree. Also, the software which does the counting can be incorrect, which is a rather common situation.)The speed of a download varies all the time. Where you are downloading from and the condition of that route between your computer & that site, as discussed above, determines the speed. If that site (or any part of the route to it) is overloaded, or is experiencing technical problems, the speed can slow to a crawl, and then stop all together if the modems get too frustrated.There are other ways to check the speed of a route to a particular site, without having to count data bits. The following programs will give you a modem's eye view of the internet.
There are 2 common utility programs used on the internet which will let you check the speed of a route. Windows95 has both built in. They are called "Ping" and "Tracert" (short for 'Trace Route'). Ping sends a signal out to any site you ask it to and then reports back to you how long it took to get there, in milliseconds. Tracert sort of lets you ride a packet and see the route it takes as well as how long each 'hop' takes, in milliseconds. In Windows95 you need only to go to an MS-DOS screen (while you are online) to run them. You don't need to switch to any particular directory, just open the MS-DOS screen and start typing on the screen. To use Ping, type "ping sitename" (omit the quotes) where "sitename" is the site you wish to 'ping', and then press the ENTER key. For example, "ping home.netscape.com" will 'ping' the netscape site and tell you how long it took for the signal to get there.The tracert procedure is the same. Type "tracert sitename", then press the ENTER key. You will see the entire route that the signal takes and the time for each hop. You will notice that the times will vary from moment to moment. You may also note that the route taken will change from moment to moment. The point is that you can see the internet at work using these programs and it helps to see what your modem is dealing with as it sends/receives packets to and from the various sites.For the Macintosh, you can use a program called Telnet to test the speed of a route (we supply on our download section:26telnet27b4.sea). You can open the program while you are online, choose the OPEN CONNECTION... option from the FILE menu and type for the HOST/SESSION name: shell.bignet.net.com, then press the RETURN key or click the OPEN button. You will see a window appear on the screen asking you to login. Type your loginname, press the RETURN key, then type your password, then press the RETURN key. To ping a site, type "ping sitename" (omit the quotes) where "sitename" is the site you wish to 'ping', and then press the RETURN key. You can also type "traceroute sitename" (omit the quotes) to see the entire route that the signal takes and the time for each hop.
OK, BUT TELL ME THIS, WHY DID I ALWAYS SEEM TO GET THE SAME HIGH SPEED WHEN I WAS CONNECTING WITH ONE OF THOSE BIG NATIONAL SERVICES? ARE YOU GUYS JUST NOT THAT GOOD?
Modems communicate in TWO directions. One direction is out, over the phone lines, to the other modem it is communicating with (and, naturally, we always assume that THIS is the speed being shown). The other direction is back to the CPU (i.e., the Brain of your computer) on the motherboard of your computer! Now the distance back to the that CPU is somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-12 INCHES (or, if you have an external modem, the distance between your modem and your computer), but it IS a distance nonetheless, and your modem, after all, DOES have to communicate with its 'boss' (the cpu). Now the data going between the cpu and the modem is at a constant rate since there are no phone lines involved and it is just moving over some of those wires inside your computer. At this point, something clever happens that can lull you into thinking you are really getting a great connection. Read on please. Modems can only show one of these 2 speeds to you at a time. Which one it shows you is set in it's programming. Usually the factory sets them to show you the speed out over the phone line. But those settings CAN be changed easily if you know what you are doing. To demonstrate an example: you just received disks in the mail from a national provider (or they fell out of some magazine you were flipping through). Those disks probably contained, among other things, a communication program and that program talked to your modem. Chances are it directed the modem to show to the user the speed to the cpu INSTEAD of the speed over the phone line and your modem did what it was told! As a result, you always saw the same "connect speed" and it was always a nice high one. What you did not know was that the speed it showed you had nothing to do with the speed between your modem and the one it was trying to communicate with in Amsterdam or Seattle or Capetown or wherever. It was only the speed over that few inches between your modem and the CPU! Clever eh.
ISN'T THAT CHEATING?!?!?
It's called "marketing".
YEAH, BUT YOU BENEFIT TOO .... YOU CAN'T FOOL ME!
Absolutely. It can get tiring explaining this stuff to one person at a time over the phone here at tech support. So we wrote this FAQ for all of our users to read.We are aware that we have our own problems here from time to time that can affect your connections. But the fact is that the vast majority of the time the problem of slow connectivity is related to matters that NO internet service provider can control. It is just the nature of the beast.
OK, BUT AREN'T YOU GUYS EVER AT FAULT? THIS ALL SOUNDS LIKE YOU ARE BLAMING EVERYONE ELSE!
Yes, sometimes the problem is our problem. We are constantly checking and tweaking our system to try to give you the best speed possible. However, we make mistakes too. Equipment can fail too, of course. It may help you to know that most of the time several of our staff are using the system just like you do, and we become aware of problems you're experiencing. Also, several staff members have dedicated lines from their home to our system, with full access to the system, so that even in the dead of night someone from michusa.com is usually on the system. The fact is that 95% of the calls we get relating to speed (assuming a healthy computer system is being used) are related to the matters that were presented above.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER THINGS THAT COULD SLOW ME DOWN?
Sure. Your computer has a myriad of settings which can affect speed. But the default settings for most programs and devices are set to facilitate maximum speed and you are best served by not adjusting a lot of stuff, especially if you are not sure of what you are doing. If you would like to find out how fast your connect is currently please click here.
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