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Connecting Tampa Bay area at Web speed

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2000

Traveling from Tampa to San Francisco in less than 3 seconds seems pretty fast -- except in Internet time.

The 2.47 seconds it took to connect a computer in Tampa to the Web site Webvan ranked worst among 25 metropolitan areas tested in early January.

In fact, Tampa recorded the slowest times for nine of 30 sites checked during the two-week period ending Jan. 9, according to the Web Performance Index in Internet World magazine (

Aha! It's the phone lines here! It's the Internet service providers! It's another example of Florida in the technology slow lane!

It's none of the above.

"We don't know why Tampa is so slow that week," said Gene Shklar, vice president of public services for Keynote Systems (, a San Mateo, Calif., company that measures the performance of Internet sites. Its information makes up the performance index.

"The fact that a particular city shows up slow or fast one week doesn't mean it will show up slow or fast the next," Shklar said. In fact, Tampa fared better in measurements taken more recently, though results have not been published. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Detroit were at the bottom in January.

The shortest and fastest way between two places may be a straight line. But that's not how the Internet works, Shklar said. Unlike a phone connection where a specific circuit is open during a call, Internet requests can travel varying routes between the computer making the request and the destination site. Delays can occur anywhere along the route, mainly because of Internet traffic.

Keynote has computers around the world that it uses in its testing. Some cities have more than one, but the company keeps only one in Tampa. Every hour between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m., it automatically measures the time to access and download 40 Web sites. Each site is downloaded four times an hour, with computers connected to high-speed T1 phone lines. (Keynote also has a consumer index on its Web site showing the fastest sites, based on regular dial-up phone connections.) Keynote then calculates an average response time for each site.

To go from the Tampa computer to Internet retailer in Santa Clara, Calif., the route included Tampa, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago and Santa Clara, passing 18 network nodes, or intersections, along the way. To go from Keynote's headquarters computer in San Mateo to Tampa, the route included San Mateo, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Atlanta, Orlando and Tampa, passing nine network nodes.

Traffic at any of those nodes can delay your request. One element determining the route is the carrier. Say a request to log onto a Web site starts on a network we'll call Sender and is destined for a site we'll call Receiver. Sender's Internet service provider carrier will work to transfer that request -- and the cost of carrying it -- to the Receiver network as soon as possible.

For the adventurous or obsessive, programs such as the free Sam Spade ( or $30 Visual Route ( allow you to measure Internet performance and routes.

"We sell this data to e-commerce Web sites," Shklar said. "Over time, they get a picture of what their Web site looks like to their users in various cities. They want to deliver consistent performance consistently over time and over geography."

Along with the data, Keynote provides customers diagnostic tools to identify and fix problems based on geography, with the goal of improving speed and reliability.

"Those are the key ingredients of customer service on the Web," Shklar said. "It's easy to switch away (from a slow site). Web sites, especially Web sites that generate revenue that are mission critical, need to do everything they can so they don't turn away customers."

And, the Internet being the Internet, factors can change minute to minute, day to day, or week to week. Tampa, it seems, just had a bad week in early January.

"The Internet is the really wondrous network of networks," Shklar said. "It's not a single monolithic thing. It's just kind of a miracle that it works."

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