04 January 2006

Bandwidth problems

I have been having the most incredible problems with the Internet here at UCT. It is generally too slow, keeps freezing, allows minimal access to Gmail (if at all) and is impossible to use for the research purposes that are required for honours and postgraduate courses such as my own. Beyond this, it is impossible to access any site without being put through the Novell Border Manager Login, which does not let you access the site, even if your details are correct. It simply says "You are logged in" and does not connect to the site. I cannot access journal databases because the pages take about five minutes to load, and when they have, one cannot access any of the links on it because the session has expired and the page has to be refreshed again. This makes any work impossible.

At first I assumed the Internet labouring might have something to do with Commerce IT because the Knowledge Commons is considerably faster. Initially, I spoke to our course secretary about the problem. She said that I should write a letter to Commerce IT and told me, "Commerce IT advises that with gmail being so popular there is a curb on how much of bandwidth has been allocated to gmail [something to this effect]. Having a gmail account means that you will take a little longer accessing your account." This does not make sense to me, the bandwidth of something which is gaining popularity should surely not be "curbed"! She also told me that Luigi from Commerce IT said "that the problem [of slow Internet] could be as a result of so many people being logged on to the Internet at present. There are certain times in the day when the Internet is not being used by many people, which may increase the Internet speed for those that are logged on at the time. Luigi explained that with many people doing what they should not do, like downloading movies from the Internet also slows down the connection." My response is that this was not a problem last year, and should not be this year.

I did write a letter to Commerce IT, and was asked for my student number and the woman who replied to me, Marlene, said she would log a call with Commerce IT. She said: "This is the way to go. And this is the way that the guys in the office get the message. I have logged the call for you already. So something will be done." I then received an e-mail from Luigi. He explained to me that border control was part of a "core service that ICTS provides" and his response was that "the network and internet bandwidth is under the sole control of ICTS as it is a core service they provide and are paid to provide (same as the mail service). The best that we can do is to raise your concerns at the next Computer Users Committee (which is held every few months) where a representative of ICTS will be available." In my opinion, this problem cannot wait a few months. It must be dealt with now, because I literally cannot complete any of my course requirements in due time if the problem persists.

I have now sent two letters to ICTS, both of which have been completely ignored. The website prompts one to "log a call" if there is a problem. However, when I tried to do that I was told that my e-mail address was incorrect and that I should check on the HEAT database, which is nowhere to be found or explained. As soon as I have time, I will go there in person, but I suspect I'll be met with the same passing of the buck. I will, though.

It took me half an hour to log into my mail today to write this letter to you. While this is obviously unreliable, I have been hearing rumours that UCT has reduced their bandwidth this year.

Emma Lambert-Porter

Steffne Hughes, Communications Consultant, Personal Computing Services, Information & Communication Technology Services, replies:

I would like to thank the Monday Paper for giving ICTS an opportunity to respond to Emma Lambert-Porter's letter.

Internet access at UCT is generally slow. UCT buys Internet bandwidth from TENET, the service provider for tertiary educational institutions. UCT currently buys more Internet bandwidth than any other South African tertiary educational institution. Unfortunately bandwidth in South Africa is horrendously expensive; which explains why South African universities have so little bandwidth when compared to international universities. In spite of the cost, UCT purchased an additional 2.5Mbps of bandwidth at the start of this year.

ICTS actively manages this expensive resource by allocating e-mail, general web browsing, and priority web browsing categories slices of the available bandwidth. The UCT email service is placed in a priority category so that, even at peak times, e-mail will be delivered. But, you must use your UCT e-mail account to benefit from this prioritisation. Gmail is treated as general web browsing, and has to compete with the many other websites that our user community wishes to browse. I must stress that ICTS does not censor or "curb" any site.

Based on information from the UCT Library, electronic journal subscriptions are put into a priority access category. This category is monitored, and if necessary, more bandwidth allocated to it so that access is virtually guaranteed. However, we recently had problems with unusual Internet slowness - in particular during the week of March 13 to 17 when a Telkom error prevented UCT from accessing all of our bandwidth. This affected all traffic, including the priority sites, and would explain the symptoms Ms Lambert-Porter experienced. Our response to the call that she logged in this regard with the IT Helpdesk on March 16 indicated that this was indeed a general problem, which was being addressed.

As it is a stated ICTS goal to log all Internet traffic, undergraduate labs and student residences currently access the Internet via the BorderManager caches. This allows us to track the download volumes (in MB) of all users, including "bandwidth hogs". We can also determine which URLs are popular (by download volume), for instance, "vodacom4me" is more popular than "Gmail". We are piloting new technology to replace the BorderManager caches, but the principal will remain; you will need to authenticate to get access to the Internet.

There is no difference in the speed of access to the Internet depending on which lab you use because the bottleneck is on the Internet link - which we all share. Thus, the commerce labs should be as fast (or slow) as the Library's Knowledge Commons, or indeed from anywhere on upper campus.

Ms Lambert-Porter's difficulty in logging an IT Helpdesk call using the online call logging facility was caused by the fact that she had not previously logged a call with the IT Helpdesk. A call can be logged with the IT Helpdesk by phone, e-mail or online. A call logged online is automatically created in ICTS' call management system (HEAT) under that customer's name. Accordingly, it won't work until that customer's profile is created in the system - usually the first time the customer logs a call by phone or e-mail. Having said that, profiles will not be created for undergraduate students as they are not directly supported by ICTS. Undergraduate students are supported by the lab administrators or IT staff located in the faculties, who in turn can access ICTS for assistance. We agree that this is not clear on the ICTS website and we will be making changes to improve it.

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