SaskTel Continues To Experience Problems With Its Own Success

FTLComm - Regina - September 8, 1998

SaskTel introduced its Internet service in the spring of 1995 and they did not expect to see the remarkable growth that has taken place, in the numbers of people who have chosen to make use of this province wide, one price package deal. Unlike other parts of Canada, the Internet is available to all Saskatchewan customers at the same flat rate, whereas in other areas the rates vary from urban to rural subscribers. Though this seems pretty democratic, it is hard to produce the same level of service everywhere, as high speed service is only available in some locations and ISDN is restricted to only some communities in the province. Despite this minor problem, the service is everywhere and unlike Manitoba where MTS has a lot of trouble with outages and busy signals, most Saskatchewan subscribers rarely have a problem making a connection.

To achieve this wide spread service, SaskTel has located modem pools in Yorkton, Swift Current, Prince Albert and other locations besides the two major cities. With more fibre optics lines in the ground than anywhere in North America, the rural Internet service is often faster and more reliable then in the cities.

But it is this remarkable success that has been causing the service so much trouble. The infrastructure to support this rapid growth has simply not been there. SaskTel has been extremely stingy with staffing so that the technicians who man the central server system are always short staffed. Despite the remarkable amount of income the Internet service has generated (a large number of home owners not only sign up for the Internet service but also install a second telephone line which is pure gravy to the company) and the company showing the highest profits it has made in a very long time, the expenditures on the Internet system has been very modest.

The situation reached a breaking point in early spring when the e-mail server kept overloading, this would cause it to fail and the back up e-mail server would kick in. The back up server was actually the authentication server, the system that checks the identity of each caller when they connect and for a while in the spring it was difficult and slow to connect. Realising the situation was not something that could be put off any longer, the company announced that it was going to upgrade the system and spend what it said was a lot of money to improve this portion of the service.

On July 25 they installed their new e-mail server, a powerful SGI (Silicon Graphics) server. Almost immediately the service should have improved drastically. What instead happened was that the service experienced some modest improvements but over all its performance with e-mail declined remarkably. As it turned out, the problem with the system was not related to the new server which should have and probably did, improve service, but on or about July 25 everyone has been getting this odd message when they attempt to get e-mail.

** Could not successfully startup or quit because a network stream error occurred.

I noticed the problem immediately but thought little of it as I assumed it was related to difficulties in getting the new server up and running then I began to get calls from customers complaining that they could not get their e-mail. My advice to them was to repeat the process and in time they would get a connection. The problem for me was not critical, as we get our e-mail from another server and do not have to rely upon SaskTel's e-mail system. Since most of my customers are Macintosh users I assumed that there may be some specific problem with Macintosh e-mail protocols that were giving the problem and did not realise how wide spread the problem actually was. It appears however, that Macintosh users are more likely to complain, since everything works on a Mac they are surprised and annoyed when something fails and tend to complain, whereas Windows computer users hobble along with systems and equipment that functions so poorly they consider any success remarkable.

I sent e-mail to SaskTel inquiring about the problem and received not a single reply, then when I made a couple of calls to their help line I realised that they were hiding something. Knowing full well that the system was having problems, the help line people maintained that things were working fine, even though for two consecutive days the systems collapsed completely for a short while in the late afternoon. This lead me to make some inquiries and I am pleased to say that the people at SaskTel came clean and were willing to discuss with me the nature of the problem.

On or about the time they installed the new e-mail server, the company installed a hardware "Firewall", this is a security device designed to prevent hackers from coming into the system and causing problems. It is an essential part of every Internet Service Provider and without it both the company and its customers are left wide open to vandalism. The technical people at SaskTel believe that the firewall is holding up the e-mail process just long enough to cause the "network stream error". What is essentially happening is that the request for e-mail is being held up long enough for the e-mail server to respond with a "timed out" condition thwarting the receiving of your mail.

Now for the good news. SaskTel is aware of the problem and they are devoting all of their Internet resources to try and find how they can resolve the problem. They have dealt with SGI, also the maker of the their firewall and put their staff through the ropes trying to track down the condition that is producing the error. You see the ugly problem with this sort of thing is that it does not happen every call. For me I get a success rate of 20% first time attempts to get e-mail from the SaskTel server, but for 80% the time it requires two to five attempts to achieve success. This inconsistency is the problem, if something doesn't work it is a problem you can work on and solve, but a problem that occurs much of the time and some times not at all, is really difficult to trace.

In the mean time, just keep on trying, and trying, and trying