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Andrew Seybold: The Cost of Increased Internet Traffic

It's a myth that the Internet is infinite as potential choke points already are emerging

Have you noticed the recent trend to add a lot more traffic to the Internet? Netflix has announced that it is becoming a streaming company, and then there are Apple, Microsoft, and now Google TV. This is in addition to streaming video from YouTube and other sites that provide free videos, TV or movies. Can the Internet — wired and wireless — survive this new onslaught of content?

Andrew Seybold
Andrew Seybold

This is not intended to be a doom-and-gloom article, nor is it a prediction that the Internet will crash under the weight of all of these new sources of content. Rather, its purpose is to ask questions that need to be answered if we are to continue to have an Internet that is accessible by all and that can continue to provide the services we have come to expect. Many are predicting that the wired Internet cannot sustain itself going forward and question how much more content we can load onto it before it begins to slow down. However, for each of these people, there are others who don’t seem to be at all concerned about what is happening.

We need to understand that regardless of the type of bandwidth, at some point it is limited. If we assume that it is unlimited, we will get ourselves into trouble. One of my primary concerns has to do with the lack of investment in new Internet backbone capacity. Most of the companies that provide these back-end pipes are seeing that there is no real return on their investment and have slowed or stopped adding bandwidth to the system.

The federal government wants to make broadband access ubiquitous across the United States. As we can see, soon there will be a lot of new content with growing demand. According to Google, between 40 percent and 50 percent of Internet traffic is already in the form of video and I am seeing comments about HD video services as well. I have to wonder how much bandwidth those who keep piling on more content think the Internet has? They seem to think there is infinite bandwidth and it doesn’t matter how much we add to what is already out there.

The Internet backbone is run and maintained by commercial service providers, governments and academic network operators that have settlement-free peering agreements in place among them. Back in the beginning (1987), this network was a series of T-1 lines (1.54 Mbps) that connected 170 smaller networks. A year later, the system was upgraded to T3 lines that provided 45 Mbps. Today the backbone is made up mostly of fiber-optic cables (and some microwave) and consists of OC-3, OC-12 and OC-48 circuits. OC-3 lines are capable of 155 Mbps while an OC-48 line is capable of 2.488 Gbps. The Internet is not a single back-end, there are many different back-end connections around the United States and around the world. Still, each link between the various connection points does have a finite amount of available bandwidth.

It will be interesting to see how all of this shakes out. Somewhere between those who believe the Internet will crash and burn under its own weight or the weight of its content and those who blindly believe it will be able to handle everything we throw at it, there is the middle ground, which is where I come down. We need to be aware of the issues and find better ways to manage the Internet, and I don’t believe for one minute that Net neutrality is the way to accomplish this. I think we need to let the market come up with ways to ensure that we all have equal access now and into the future.

The wireless Internet is even more bandwidth-constrained than the wired Internet. In a recent report produced by the FCC Omnibus Broadband Initiative (OBI), the Federal Communications Commission projected that by 2013 we would be 92 MHz short of spectrum to handle the demand for data services, and that only two years later the amount of spectrum shortfall will be 275 MHz. That is why the FCC has recommended to Congress that it “find” 300 MHz of additional broadband spectrum within the next five years and an additional 200 MHz within the next 10 years.

Even with the migration to 4G services (WiMAX and LTE) that make more efficient use of the spectrum, network operators will still have to manage their networks in order to ensure that each of their customers has the same level of access to broadband data services. We are already seeing some of this bandwidth management in the form of tiered pricing models. I recently read that the networks are switching to tiered pricing so they can make more money; the simple truth is that they would rather give us all flat-rate pricing, but that leads to data hogs and the denial of service to others within the same cell sector.

You may recall that AT&T reported that only 3 percent of its iPhone-installed base was using 40 percent of the bandwidth being consumed by iPhones on its network. These users did not care how much bandwidth they were using or how their usage affected other customers on the network. Network operators have to juggle data demand with their ability to provide good, solid service to the most customers. It is a tough situation for them to have to be in, but tiered pricing is one way they can assure their customers that there will be bandwidth available when they want it.

If the wireless Internet continues to be viewed as an extension of the wired Internet, the spectrum shortage will be felt sooner than 2013. I must state once more that we need to be smarter with wireless access and one way is to build access into more applications and make less use of browsers. Perhaps the only thing that is a plus here is that it does not appear as though mobile TV has caught on and the number of mobile TV customers is small compared to the total installed base. However, other types of video are being streamed in both directions.

All data pipes are shared pipes at some point. Wireless pipes are shared on a cell sector basis, DSL lines are not shared but upon reaching the local switching center they are aggregated and sent onward. Cable is shared within a node. You might have noticed that at 3 p.m., after school lets out, your cable connection slows, and even fiber, which is not shared between your location and the back-end, is shared again as it is aggregated to distribution. Each of these shared points is known as a potential choke point for a network and there are many, depending on the connection and the architecture of the back-end services. The Internet has choke points as well. The question is if we will reach any of these choke points in the near future, and if so, how we cope with the problem.

— Santa Barbara resident Andrew Seybold heads Andrew Seybold Inc., which provides consulting, educational and publishing services. Click here for more information.

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