Sunday, September 18, 2016

'I Can't Load Your Website'

I have been getting this complaint quite a bit since mid-August about several of the platforms that I use (my teaching site and NING) while the sites are fully functioning.  I know that it is tremendously frustrating for a user to not be able to get into a site and that level of frustration is being thrown at me like darts.

The internet, like the plumbing system, has much we take for granted and much we don't know about the system when we decide to fill a glass of water or load a web page.  99% of users think that when their computer browser fails to load a page once or several times over a period of time, it is due to a crash of the server that the original data is hosted on.  In fact that is only true in a very small percentage of the complaints.

When I do get one, I immediately try loading the pages from my home network in Massachusetts, my iPhone (on a different network platform) and have my web designer do the same in Michigan to see if the host server is up and responding.  Usually we also make a call to the host server farm in Florida to see if there is any localized outage at the farm or at the nodes nearby.  So far this last year, only two of the many complaints resulted in finding the web host actually down and only for  Each time it was rectified in 2 minutes.

The content I provide resides on four different systems, none of which are hosted in the same place.  Blogger, Shopify, NING, and then my own private system called where the course content is hosted.  It would be a HIGHLY unusual situation that two or more of these servers which are as much as 3000 miles apart were down at the same time.

So this is where understanding your own internet comes into play and why it is SOOO hard for me to respond and help once I have made sure that the actual content is live on the internet.

The internet is a complicated network of 'pipes' and nodes or 'switching stations' that route a request to my server for the data around the world (what happens when you put the web address in the browser).  Each pipe and node have limits to the amount of data (usually called data packets) that can move through the system.  Data is routed in chunks (represented by the moving line at the top of your browser) over a period of time and if any set of those chunks do not arrive, the page will not load.  Your browser also has a 'timeout' feature, whereas the data request to the host server has a finite time from the original request that it needs to get all the data before the request is jettisoned.  (Don't ask me what and why - that is about the extent of my knowledge there!).

So when a webpage does not load or gives the 'page doesn't load, exist' etc. errors, it is because of these two issues - the data is not completely getting there because of a lost data piece in route or the time to load has exceeded the limit.  So WHY does this happen?

This is the part that just drives me INSANE trying to help people.  There are DOZENS of reasons why and since I don't know your locations, internet provider and type, plan, computer, usage profile, time and how often this problem happened, if you are on wifi or connected to the ethernet, have a password on your router, or net neutrality laws of your country and policies of your provider - it is nearly impossible for me to help you figure it out.

And mind me - we are having said problems in our own household huge as well.  That is one reason I have some clue as to what might be going on.  While I can check and see that the site being complained about is still up and running - we are constantly having issues with speed here that affect what type of internet content we can access.  I will treat the reason we have this problem with internet in my discussion below.

Problem Type 1:  Is the Site Up?

- You can check the site at a different location or with a different service provider (i.e. through your smart phone not connected to the wifi.  Check it at work, next door, etc.  Or email me to see if I can see it. You can use Down For Everyone or Just Me website to type in my site address and it will tell you if it is down or not.  (Thank you Kate!)

Problem Type 2:  Your Software/Hardware

- Browsers keep the last version of the site loaded in your browser memory called a history or cashe.  This is a technique to increase the speed and responsiveness of the internet.  So if the last version was a 'page not found', you might be reloading that over and over.  You have to clear the cashe or history and then reboot either the browser or computer to erase that copy.

- There are also other problems that can occur on your computer such as having too many tabs/sites open or programs open.  You might have video playing in the background that you don't know about, especially from webpages open such as CNN which continuously play videos on open pages in a loop.  So you are downloading other high bandwidth content and don't even know about it, fighting with the new content you are trying.  Again closing things down and rebooting is the best way to stop all those background processes.

- If you are on satellite or phone internet - god help you.  These services are becoming harder and harder to get good internet speeds and thus avoid webpage timeouts.  If you have broadband, are you connected to the WiFi?  You can find out if the issue is with your router (they do get clogged up - again I am not going to go into the reasons why) and they need to be rebooted.  You do that by unplugging the router from the wall and waiting 60 seconds and then plugging it in again.  I think we must do that weekly around here.

- You can tell if it is your router if you plug into the ethernet connection from your cable box, that is the unfiltered signal at the highest speed into your home.  Wifi speeds can be affected by interference as well as the distance to the antenna and the amount of metal lathe in your walls (that creates a faraday cage and blocks the signal).

- Do you have a wifi router without password?  If you don't password protect your router, everyone around you can be streaming their Netflicks off your internet provider account.  This is a huge issue and comes into play in the next section.  Password protect it now!  Our own issues with the internet in our house (other than issues with old house metal lathe) is the robot team.  Each time a kid comes in to work, they bring a computer and iPhone.  Each automatically connects to our wifi (they need to work) but they also play.  Snapchat pictures, youtube, etc. is constantly being used like water.  With the number of kids we can have 30+ devices connected to our internet at once.  That causes two problems - instantaneously we are trying to download too much and it can't.  This is where Problem Type 3 comes in...

Problem Type 3:  Your Internet Provider and the Rest of the Network

- This is the hardest and most impossible problem to solve and the one that is causing more than 75% of the problem these days.  The habits of people have changed very fast and downloads and video use across the internet has exploded.  Even my 85 year old in-laws and 70-yr old dad all watch YouTube all day long and can't understand why their internet gets really bad and they can't watch.  It isn't all teens.

- So there is too much traffic for the web and something has to be done.  There are two solutions that are used, both are called bandwidth throttling.  It is how the throttling is done that is becoming a problem.   One is for the nodes to prioritize traffic by the locations (servers) they are pinging and for high volume areas, cut off traffic and let data packets drop (resulting in page not loading, can't see page, etc).  This prevents server or node crashes which results in much wider spread outage in service.  You can actually see that by the internet 'weather map'.  While there are several places you can see this info, this is most useful as you can see where in the world the slow downs are occurring and where internet hacking attacks are occurring that will also slow the internet by overloading it.  Not a surprise that 90% of the complaints I have been getting about my site are coming from areas in red.  A REALLY GOOD explanation of how data gets lost in this process is on this page and I HIGHLY recommend you reading this page to understand the internet - it will have everything that happens to you make much more sense.

Internet traffic overview - called the Weather Map

- The second way that bandwidth throttling is done is at your house.  Your internet provider monitors your use and decides if you are exceeding what they want you to use to try to keep some normal level of use for all their customers.  They then throttle your bandwidth (download speed).  This is the nexus of the hub-bub in the USA over 'Net Neutrality' and the fight at the FTC.  Each country has different laws or regulations at the moment and they are changing.  Also there are multiple class-action lawsuits at the moment in the USA with proof that the providers are doing selective throttling against web data that is video or downloads (like my class pages).

So let's go into the individual bandwidth throttling issue.  This is just driving me INSANE as I get emails that say something like "I can get on X site but not yours".  Yes, the internet providers (SKY, Verizon, ATT, Comcast, etc) are choosing what type of data you can download into your house at peak periods.   So you mistakenly think that the SITE is down, not knowing that your ISP is not allowing you to access that data type.  Not only that, the new laws have allowed them to do that either after you have exceeded some data limit for the day or month hidden in your contract (so if you are watching You Tube - you can't download class pages later that day).  Or they can throttle back your overall speed which results in super sluggish internet and page timeouts.  Sometimes the regulations will make them do that temporarily, returning your speed after 15 minutes.  Sometimes not until your next billing period.  It is all depending on the laws in your area and your actual contract on how they implement throttling - and they don't have to legally let you know.  So if someone is using your internet wifi - you are screwed and don't know it.  Or if you are watching YouTube or net flicks a lot - too bad.  Or have 30 devices connected to your internet over the weekend, kiss goodbye working on your mailing labels on the internet on Monday until the throttling is let up by Tuesday.  (Yes I scream loudly at the kids).

The class action lawsuits are about this 'neutrality' of data issue.  The users are claiming that the internet should be blind to the data type.  Meaning that video or download data should be equal to email and plain webpage content.  But the providers can see what type is what and are throttling based on type.  The only current solution to this is to install a VPN on your computer and use that with your internet.  It encrypts your website requests so all data looks the same to your internet provider and they can't choose what to throttle.  But they can still decide that you have exceeded your daily or monthly cap and throttle all your use to a low speed; causing dropouts of pages and data.

There are also HUGE rumblings in the USA (don't know about overseas) that the ISP (internet providers) are doing this on purpose to get everyone to pay for higher levels of service.  At the same time that the net neutrality regulations came into place, all of a sudden all providers started to offer different plans - either different data caps or internet speeds.  When you start to complain about your service - they offer a better plan.  What they don't tell you is that they are closing your faucet to make your internet slower than what you are paying for so you will have to buy a higher plan.  There are going to be a TON of lawsuits on this by the end of the year here.

So how do you know?  First - do you even know what your plan is?  Do you have a data cap for the day/month?  What speed are you paying for?  Have you ever run a speed test on your internet at the wifi level or at the box (computer connected to the box)?  Here are my tests run within two minutes of each other:

Speed Test for Internet Downloads

Results - not getting what I pay for

So you can see that my internet speed is 6.76 Mbps today.  I PAY for 50 Mbps.  Yup.  Not getting it and it is obvious that the throttle is on with a vengeance after having 6 teens in the house yesterday.

We are resisting falling into their traps and having to buy one of the four higher packages they are offering us on the phone when we complain.  Jerks.  How do I know they won't throttle that one to get me to the next higher plan??  They like to tell me that 'it must be the internet site you are trying' - sound familiar?  Yup - and then you all email me and complain that NING or Thistle-threads is down and your internet provider told you so.  I grit my teeth and spend a half hour making sure all my sites are up and waste the time of my web guy too making sure.  I certainly want to know if it is down so I can get it back up, so I don't want to tell people to not email me - because it does happen.  But this is becoming a multiple week occurrence and not the twice yearly thing it used to be.

I don't know what the solution is.  I have tried to lay out many ways you can rule it down to the throttling issue and how you can manage the throttling into your home.  I get TONS of complaints about my class pages being page by page.  This is exactly why I do it.  If you were to download big files - none of them would ever finish loading and then you would have nothing at all.

I am monitoring this situation and trying to figure out what to do - or what I can do - on my end.



  1. Another very good way for people to check whether a site is actually down:

    go to
    and write down the site name and press enter. This will instantly tell you whether a site is down for everyone (problem at the site) or just for you (problem with your internet connection)

  2. I just always assumed it was because I lived in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, I also have VERY limited choices for internet connections, so have always figured it was just forcing me to live a quiet life.