A sign of Internet online congestion is the slowing down and possible grinding to a halt of data retrieval from distant computer sites, due to too great a number of Internet users surfing the Internet at once. A multiplicity of service providers change software and hardware frequently in order to compete more effectively in an environment in which technical standards are in flux. The combination of rising consumer expectations, increasing system crashes, technological upheaval, and power failures place continuing stress on the developing Internet.
The congestion problems are not primarily caused by either the systems of the information providers or by the speed limitations of the user's receiving modem or PC. Most stem from the quality of the links between the user and their service provider, from the limitations of the service provider's system, and from the links between the provider and the information supplier. Furthermore, servers are not necessarily well-designed to serve media-rich content and the current increased level of demand.
In 1996, one million users suffered interrupted or erratic service because of planned or unplanned service breakdowns; the scope of problems and maintenance breaks surprised many, including the service providers.
Given a common resource, individuals will seek to maximize their own gain unless there is external policing. As users cannot see how their own use slows down the system, they are not motivated to reduce it even when the system begins to slow down.