The internet's breakneck expansion poses questions for its futureby Tom Chatfield / June 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Underlying the virtual palaces of the internet lies a physical infrastructure, tended to and monetized by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Each of the world’s more than two billion internet users derives their service, directly or indirectly, from ISPs, which in turn plough much of the money they make into ensuring the net is able to keep up with its users’ demands. And the central demand of almost every internet user, whether they know it or not, is for rapid, clean bandwidth: for a connection reliably able to send and receive an uninterrupted stream of data as fast as possible.
The growth of the modern internet is taking place in two areas simultaneously: more people than ever are coming online, and the services they are using are becoming ever more hungry for bandwidth. In 2004, the world’s total monthly volume of internet traffic passed the Exabyte mark for the first time: over one billion, billion bytes of information. By 2010, this figure had grown twenty-fold; and it is likely to pass 80 Exaybtes per month by 2015.
This byte explosion comes above all thanks to changing habits of internet use. Where once the net was primarily used for email and for browsing text-based web pages, it is now dominated by video-streaming and file-sharing services. An online video of standard resolution takes up several hundred times more data than a text-based web page; and for a high definition video this runs into thousands. The video-on-demand service Netflix is now the single biggest user of bandwidth in North America, with its streamed videos representing 30 per cent of all US internet traffic at peak times. One hour of streaming a high definition movie via Netflix can use well over a Gigabyte of data: more than most people would have used in a year a decade ago.
What does all this mean? Few people believe that the internet is likely to “break” under the strain of new traffic. But the commercial and social context within which its continued expansion is taking place needs close consideration. For a start, bandwidth is becoming something that affects almost everyone’s lives. A reliable internet connection has already been defined as a human right in countries including France and Finland. Not surprisingly, the world is high unequal in its net access quality and speeds, with an average broadband connection Britain being several times slower than one in Japan or South Korea, and African networks slower still. There’s also continuing controversy surrounding the difference between the theoretical maximum bandwidths advertised by ISPs and the actual quality of service that subscribers receive.
Underlying all this is a vital set of issues for the internet’s future. Many ISPs claim that a sufficient strain is being put on the infrastructure of the internet that they need to introduce measures both to regulate this and to make enough money to keep expanding global capacity. Such measures include stricter caps on the amount of data users can download each month; metered billing systems; and, most controversially, the ability to charge corporate customers a premium for giving their online services a higher priority than other data.
This last possibility lies at the heart of the so-called “net neutrality” debate, over whether the net can be maintained as a resource where every online service is equally accessible to users with the same connection quality. Whatever happens, it is increasingly clear that the future of the internet lies across both multiple platforms and increasingly multi-tiered levels of access—and that those behind the scenes upon whom the world’s internet services ultimately rely hold many of the cards.