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Internet services win fans for their reliability

The Baltimore Sun

If you don't count Jared the Subway dude, the two nerdiest characters in American television commercials are probably the Verizon tech and John Hodgman as the "PC" in the Apple spots.

That's instructive because the characters were meant to play off the impression that people are often dissatisfied with the reliability of their cell phones or their computer operating system.

There is no "Can you surf me now?" character on TV. And that's probably because people have generally become content with the reliability of the Internet. They may be aggravated by spam, scams and the strange, robotic dancing chick in the refinancing pop-up ads, but when they shop online or access the Web, the network typically works.

Like the Ma Bell phone system long ago, the Internet is now pretty much expected to perform whenever needed. Online reliability is a far cry better than a decade ago when sites would often be overwhelmed by heavy traffic, especially for news events like the independent counsel's report on the Monica Lewinsky scandal or the "Do Not Call" list sign-ups.

YouTube seemed to have no problem delivering a new audience to CNN for the presidential debates last year, driving viewer numbers to historic levels. And the recent shopping season might have been so-so for retailers overall, but online purchasing soared. The system mostly responded well even on peak days like the Monday after Thanksgiving. Online holiday shopping topped $29 billion, up 19 percent from 2006, according to the digital researcher comscore. People now spend more time on the Internet than watching television, according to some estimates.

A lot of so-called "dark fiber" that was built before the market was ready, which led to many dot-com and telecom business collapses after 2000, is now helping meet demand for online video and other services.

"A lot of money is being made online, and that's driving improvements. In 1996, when the first Web browser came out, people saw it as a novelty. E-mail wasn't replacing the phone call. Now that's not the case," said Shawn White, director of operations for Keynote Systems, an online test and measuring company in Silicon Valley.

His company recently issued a report on Web trends after examining the experiences of 50,000 online consumers who used more than 200 Web sites in more than 20 industries.

In news, users seemed less concerned with the credibility of coverage - less than half considered the leading news sites "trustworthy" - than with the amount of information available. Yahoo News, MSNBC and CNN ranked in the top three for customer experience. Fox and Google also ranked high for service reliability and speed.

In sports, online "fantasy" leagues, especially for football, helped stoke user satisfaction.

ESPN, which was the top site for customer experience in Keynote's survey, grew its fantasy football audience to nearly 3.4 million last September, up 48 percent from the previous September. CBS Sportsline, which was rated the most reliable site overall in the Keynote study, is also a major fantasy football host with players averaging two hours a month assembling and tracking their own "teams" on the site, according to Nielsen.

In online mapping services, MapQuest ranked highest in customer satisfaction, followed by Google Maps and Yahoo Maps, Keynote said. .

Like highway construction, building Internet infrastructure is always a "catch-up game," Keynote's White said. "You have two lanes. They start choking up. You add a third lane. Then more cars come on and you need another."

Buzz that Apple may soon join Netflix in offering movie-rental downloads will add new pressures because of the significant bandwidth required. The hugely popular social networking sites like Facebook are also now seeing slowdowns, a European online monitoring company called Watchmouse reported Thursday.

Climate change and the Internet are also inextricably connected - beyond being Al Gore's favorite subjects. Significant weather events, like those that inflicted havoc from the Pacific Rim to the Gulf Coast in recent years, can damage the cables that carry Internet traffic, leading to slowdowns and outages.

New pressures are also bound to grow with demand for a more mobile Web. Apple's iPhone helped propel the wireless Web further into the consciousness of people last year, although for now, only about one-third of people who use the Internet have logged on wirelessly, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project last year.

As that changes, users will expect the Web to be speedy and reliable wherever they are, just as their parents and grandparents felt about picking up the phone receiver.

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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