Internet Census and Use Estimates

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-05-12.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

United States
General Accounting    Office
Washin@on,    D.C. 20548

General   Government   Division


May 12, 1997

The Honorable Sheila Jackson Lee
House of Representatives

Subject: Internet Census and Use Estimates

Dear Ms. Jackson Lee:

On February 12, 1997, your office requested information relevant to your
proposal for a national Internet census. As agreed with your office, our
objectives in this letter were to (1) summarize the range of current estimates of
Internet access and usage in the United States, (2) describe several key
concepts related to defining the “capacity” of the Internet, and (3) identify
additional issues where there are questions about the federal role in the
development of the Internet.


The Internet began as a federal project to facilitate communication and data
exchange among research universities and defense contractors. The Internet
today has been described as a “network of networks.” Networks link
computers; for example, a network in a federal agency may provide that
agency’s staff with access to central data and the ability to share information.
The Internet extends that access and ability to other networks by linking them
together under common communications protocols. Messages are transmitted
from one network to another through the Internet, and may pass through
several of the networks en route to their destinations. A single message, in fact,
is broken into “packets” that move separately and that may move through
different paths to their destination. The packets are routed through the Internet
(moving across multiple networks) according to rules set to minimize
transmission time. The objective of the common communications protocols is
to define how these individual packets can be reassembled at the destination so
that the message appears to be intact to the recipient who reads it.

Users gain access to the Internet through several different methods. Some
individuals have access through schools or employers. The schools and
employers, in turn, generally purchase access through Internet service providers

                                            GAO/GGD-97-102R   Internet   Census and Use Estimates


(ISP), who in turn are connected to “backbone providers.” ’ Other individual users
purchase access directly from ISPs.

The array of services that an individual user is able to access can be divided into
several broad categories, including tile transfer protocol (ftp), electronic mail (e-mail),
and the World-Wide Web (WWW). By using ftp services, users can electronically move
computer fles containing programs or data from one computer to another over the
Internet. E-mail enables users to exchange messages electronically; these messages
may be “posted” on Internet bulletin boards or be part of “news groups.”

WWW, or Web access, builds on the other types of Internet access. Using special
software or “browsers,” users can access “pages”that are stored on distant computers.
These pages are formatted or marked in accordance with a deiined standard that
electronically Iinks them together. These links allow users to jump from one Web
page to another. By providing these links that facilitate movement from page to page
and by allowing these pages to contain a wide assortment of graphics (which may be
used as links themselves), Web services have made it much easier for users to gain
access to the information available through the Internet. This increased ease of usage,
in turn, has contributed to the explosive growth in Internet use over the last several


Estimates of the current use of the Internet or access to its services vary widely. One
Internet source gathered private sector estimates of use and access that were made
between July 1996 and January 1997 and reported a range between 5.8 million users
and 35 miXLion with access. A subsequent estimate put the Internet population at 47
million, but noted that “relatively few are ‘heavy’users.” There are several reasons for
the range of estiates. Surveys employed different defitions of use and access; for
example, some sought to identify those who have used the Internet recently, while
others sought to identify those who have access to the Internet that they may or may
not use. In addition, studies conducted at different times may have substantially
different results because of the rapid growth in Internet usage in the United States.
Finally, studies did not have a uniform methodology for estimating Internet usage.
However, while the different sources disagreed on the level of Internet use and access,
they did agree that regardless of how it may be measured, Internet activity is
increasing at a fast rate. This fast growth, in turn, may complicate the task of
measuring the level of activity.

By design, the Internet is decentralized, complicating both the definition and
measurement of its capacity. And while there have been complaints about Internet

‘“Backbones” route tr&c between ISPs and connect with other backbones. Backbone
providers include MCI, UUNet, and Sprint.
 2                                              GAO/GGD-97-102R   Internet   Census   and Use Estimates
congestion, there is no way to conclusively demonstrate the extent to which this is
actually occurring or what causes underlie any congestion. The rapid growth in the
Internet also makes it dif&ult to precisely dei5ne its capacity. A key question,
however, is whether the available capacity is being used efficiently. In addition, new
technologies are presently being designed and deployed that are intended to increase
the ability of the Internet to transmit messages and data.

While the federal government played a key part in the creation of the Internet, its role
has been decreasing during the recent growth in Internet usage. In several areas,
however, there is a continued or evolving federal role. The Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) is consideling whether there is a more efficient way to charge ISPs
for phone lines used to provide Internet access to their customers; ISPs and several
other businesses providing lntemet services and Internet-related products oppose such
changes. Debate continues over proposals to restrict encryption technology that can
render messages sent over the Internet unreadable to anyone but the intended
recipient, with privacy concerns competing against law enforcement and national
security needs to intercept and decipher messages. Finally, an interagency task force
is working to develop a consistent federal strategy to address policy issues posed by
growing Internet use.


Internet Use and Access

An Internet-based compilation of estimates of the size of the Internet user population
noted that “one of the most contentious Internet issues is the size of the user
population.“2 It noted two principal reasons for the difFerences among the competing

- The rapid growth in Internet usage could lead to misleading comparisons between
  surveys that were not conducted at comparable times. The compilation suggested
  that surveys conducted more than 90 days apart from each other should not be

- “Different questions produce different results. ” Different surveys have used different
  questions to measure whether a respondent is an Internet user. These questions
  can differ with respect to the time period in question (e.g., whether a respondent
  has used the Internet within the last 3 months or 1 year) and with respect to the
  definition of Internet use (e.g., “logging on,” using the W W W , or using any of the
  other Internet services) or access.

““CyberAtlas” (http://www.cyberatlas.com on Feb. 7, 1997).
3                                             GAO/GGD-97-102R   Internet        Census   and Use Estimates
This compilation identifted 13 studies conducted between July 1995 and November
1996 that sought to estimate Internet usage. The earliest study, by O’Reilly &
Associates, estimated that, as of July 1995, the population with Internet access in the
United States was 5.8 million. This estimate was based on random phone calls to
households. The highest estimates were presented in two studies. In November 1996,
Lou Harris & Associates estimated that there were 35.0 million adult Internet users in
the United States; Intelliquest offered the same estimate in July 1996.

Subsequently, Intelliquest reported that, during the fourth quarter of 1996, the
Internet/online population was approximately 47 million adults. (The online
population refers to users of online services, such as America OnLine, which typically
provide their customers with Internet access as well as other services.) This estimate
was based on random phone calls to households. According to Intelliquest, “this
represents a 34 percent growth in the online population from the first quarter of 1996,
which was measured at 35 million. Despite this dramatic population growth in 1996,
relatively few are ‘heavy users’, with four and a quarter million people using the
Internet and online services 20 hours or more per week.‘13

We have not sought to verify these estimates or compare the differences in the
methodologies among the studies.

Internet Cauacitv

By design, the Internet is decentralized. Originally, this was to provide redundant
ability to transmit messages. A consequence of that design is that the capacity of the
Internet is difficult to detie and measure.

One assessment of Internet congestion listed several commonly cited reasons for
congestion: “overloaded Web servers” (computers that make Web pages available to
Internet users), loss of packets during periods of peak Internet usage, problems
associated with the way that ISPs are linked to the Internet, and capacity limitations
of Internet routers and backbones.4 Another study noted that “two types of Intemet-
related congestion should be distinguished: congestion of the Internet backbones, and

31ntelIiquest(http://www.intelliquest.com/about/release24.htm    on Apr. 22, 1997).
4Bob Metcalfe, “NetNow’s Statistics Trigger Defensive Responses Prom Some Comers
of the ‘Net,” Infoworld, February 3, 1997, p. 3. “Routers” are computers that assign
individual packets to routes through the Internet that are determined to be the best at
the point in time when the assignment is made; since Internet trafEc patterns vary
over time, packets that comprise parts of the same message may be assigned different
physical routes.
4                                              GAOIGGD-97-102R   Internet   Census and Use Estimates
congestion of the public switched telephone network when used to access the

Some components of the Internet, such as backbones, can be described in terms of
their capacity to transmit data, and capacity limitations, if any, that exist in this
physical component of the Internet can be measured. The impact of physical
measures of capacity, such as backbone transmission capability, on users cannot be as
easily determined, however, because any congestion perceived by users may have
been caused by physical limitations at several different locations.

A second key issue in defining capacity-as it appears to an Internet user-is the
efficiency with which the physical capacity to transmit data is used, and this factor
also does not lend itself to easy measurement. Messages sent through the Internet are
divided into packets to improve the efficiency of transmitting them, using the available
backbones and other aspects of the Internet system. This strategy makes it possible
to transmit more messages within a given time than would be possible if the messages
had to remain intact during transmission. Very roughly speaking, the ability of a user’s
computer and software to “reassemble” the message (or Web page) from the packets
makes the Internet more efficient, and the availability of computers and software acts
as a substitute for the greater capacity that would be needed if Internet connections
were terminals with no computing ability.

If the available capacity of the Internet is not used as efficiently as possible, there are
a variety of possible causes. One assessment says that the “real problem with
maintaining the Internet backbone is not trtic capacity. , . _ The real problem is
keeping track of all the networks that form the Internet.” Thus, if one network that is
part of the Internet shuts down and restarts, messages must be sent to “routers all
over the network so they can make optimal routing decisions based on the state of the
network in real-time.“6 Other causes of congestion have also been asserted. For
example, some Internet experts have asserted that smaller or inexperienced service
providers do not handle Internet addresses efficiently, thereby causing problems for
the entire Internet, which must track these addresses.

‘K. Werback, “Digital Tornado: The Internet and Telecommunications Policy,” Federal
Communications Commission, Office of Plans and Policy Working Paper Series 29,
March 1997, p- 52. This paper notes that its analysis and conclusions do not
necessarily represent the views of the FCC or individual commissioners.

“George Lawton, “Building the Internet Backbone: Take A Virtual Tour of a Busy
Network Access Point” (http://www.magpag.com/-kozmando/NAP/comp.html       on Apr. 28,

5                                               GAO/GGD-97-102R   Internet        Census and Use Estimates
Current Policv Debates

The federal government had substantial responsibility for the beginnings of the
Internet, with both the Department -of Defense and the National Science Foundation
providing much support to the Internet during its early years. In recent years, that
support has diminished as private businesses and institutions have assumed greater

The federal government remains involved in the Internet in several areas. The
Communications Decency Act of 1996, for instance, seeks to prohibit use of the
Internet as a method for disseminating pornography. Other areas where the federal
government is considering a continued role include re,tiation of telecommunications
charges for ISPs and regulation of encryption technology.

Many Internet users use telephone lines to access Internet services. Arguing that such
use imposes requirements on them that are substantially different from voice
communications, regional telephone companies have asserted that they should be
compensated for the increased loads put on their systems. The regional telephone
companies argue that Internet access not only increases the number of calls made, but
that those calls typically are also longer in duration than the voice calls for which
their systems are primarily designed. However, the current pricing for phone services
in the United States is based on a principle that the party placing a call will pay
(“sender pays”). While ISPs commonly have a large number of phone lines, these lines
typically are not used for outgoing calls, and ISPs thus effectively pay flat monthly
rates for the phone lines rather than usage-based charges. ISPs dispute the contention
that the congestion attributable to their operation poses a serious problem.
Opponents of proposals to impose use-based telephone charges on IsPs also assert
that the flat-rate monthly rates are designed to recover the costs incurred by the
 telephone companies; if the rates can compensate for local service without usage
 charges, they equally can compensate for Internet access. The FCC has sought
 comment on “how it can most effectively create incentives for the deployment of
 services and facilities to allow more efficient transport of data traffic to and fiorn end

Through encryption, a message can be made unreadable to anyone but the intended
recipient. Ensuring privacy of communications is often considered essential to
commercial use of the Internet: individuals and businesses are not likely to entrust
financial transactions to communications that cannot be made secure against
interception. As noted in the draft of “A Framework for Global Economic Commerce,”
a report prepared by an interagency working group, however, I’. . . strong encryption
not only enables law-abiding citizens to protect better their trade secrets and personal
records, it can also be used by criminals and terrorists to hide their activities and

 6                                              GAO/GGD-97-102R   Internet   Census and Use Estimates
thwart legally-authorized investigations.“5 Exports of certain encryption programs are
thus subject to export controls. Opponents of such controls have argued that, since
the technology underlying these encryption programs cannot be controlled, such
export controls limit U.S. businesses without providing effective means of enhancing
U.S. security.

In addition, the draft of “A Framework for Global Economic Commerce” sets out the
following recommendations for policy:

     “Fostering the Internet as a Non-Regulatory, Market-Driven Medium:
     - Establishing cyberspace as a duty-free zone
     - Advocating for no new taxes on the Internet
     - Allowing electronic payment systems to evolve without premature government
     - Encouraging industry self-regulation where appropriate
     - Enabling market forces to drive the development of technical standards.

     “Ensuring a Transparent and Harmonized Global Legal Environment
     - Creating a ‘Uniform Commercial Code’for cyberspace
     - Protecting intellectual property on-line
     - Partnering with industry to safeguard security in the electronic marketplace.

     “Allowing Competition and Consumer Choice to Shape the Marketplace
     - Maintaining privacy and the integrity of personal information
     - Fostering fair competition and striving for interoperability among national
       telecommunications systems
     - Empowering consumers to manage questions of content
     - Opposing non-tariff barriers which limit free trade across the Internet, such as
       content restrictions, discriminatory telecommunications regulations, standards
       requirements, or anti-competitive compulsory licensing requirements.”

As of April 23, 1997, the policy statement had not been &&ized.

Federal policy on Internet issues also is among the issues addressed by the
interagency Information Infrastructure Task Force. One component of that effort is an
Information Policy Committee, chaired by the Administrator of the Office of
Information and Regulatory A&irs at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
That committee is to address information policy issues that must be resolved if the
National Information Infrastructure is to be “fully deployed and utilized.”

“‘A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce,” draft 9, December 11, 1996
(http://www.iitf.nist.gov/eleccomm@o~com.htm on Feb. 13, 1997).
7                                            GAO/GGD-97-102R   Internet   Census and Use Estimates

Since much of the information about the Internet is available through the Internet,
most of the information presented in this letter was collected from Web pages. These
pages were identified by several Internet search programs (including “Yahoo” and “Alta
Vista”) and were accessed between February and April 1997. Footnotes identify the
Internet addresses for the Web pages and the dates on which the information was
collected. Given the nature of information that is made available on the Web, we
could not independently verify the information, nor can we ensure that the
information presented remains available at the Internet addresses cited.

We did not seek to verify the estimates of Internet access and use and its capacity
that were made available on these Web pages. We did identify key difFerences in
defitions and research methodologies that were included in the Web pages, but did
not seek to estimate the effects of these differences on the estimates of Internet users
or access.

In discussing the evolving federal role in the Internet, we identified issues about which
there has been considerable recent controversy. We selected examples based on our
judgment that they illustrated the nature of the federal role in the Internet. We did
not seek to provide a comprehensive overview of all issues surrounding federal
policies regarding the Internet.

On April 24, 1997, we made a draft of this letter available to OMB for review and
comment. The branch chief for Information Policy and Technology, Office of
Information and Regulatory Affairs, said that OMB saw no need to comment.

The principal contributor to this correspondence was James McDermott.                 If you have
any questions, please call me on (202) 512-8676.

Sincerely yours,

L. Nye Stevens
Federal Management and
     Workforce Issues


 8                                             GAO/GGD-97-102R   Internet    Census    and Use Estimates
Ordering    Information

The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free.
Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the
following address, accompanied by a check or money order
made out to the Superintendent   of Documents, when
necessary. VISA and Mastercard    credit cards are accepted, also.
Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address
are discounted 25 percent.

Orders by mail:

U.S. General Accounting Office
P.O. Box 6015
Gaithersburg, MD 20884-6015

or visit:

Room 1100
700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW)
U.S. General Accounting  Office
Washington, DC

Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 512-6000
or by using fax number (301) 253-4066, or TDD (301) 413-0006.

Each day, GAO issues a List of newly available reports and
testimony.   To receive facsimile copies of the daiIy list or any
Iist from the past 30 days, please call (202) 512-6000 using a
touchtone phone. A recorded menu wiU provide information          on
how to obtain these Ii&s.

For information on how to access GAO reports on the INTERNET,
send an e-mail message with “info” in the body to:

United States                            Bulk Rate
General Accounting Office          Postage & Fees Paid
Washington, D.C. 20548-0001                 GAO
                                     Permit No. GlOO
Official Business
Penalty for Private    Use $300

Address   Correction   Requested