Is the internet doomed?

We rely on the internet for everything from banking to television, yet several recent reports suggest we aren’t looking after our prized electronic asset properly and that it could soon grind to a halt. According to research company Nemertes, we’re just two years from a melting point where internet demand could outstrip network capacity, leading to “brownouts” as surfers try to feast on an ever-expanding catalogue of user- and studio-generated video.

Is the internet doomed?

“We must take the necessary steps to build out network capacity or potentially face internet gridlock that could wreak havoc on internet services,” claims Larry Irving, co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, which commissioned the report. “It’s important to note that even if we make the necessary investment between now and 2010, we still might not be prepared for the next killer application or new internet-dependent business like Google or YouTube.”

With critical information, communications and an increasingly significant chunk of commerce reliant on the web, the knock-on effects of an internet collapse could be truly catastrophic. But is there genuine cause for alarm?

Web professionals – whether they work for international bandwidth brokers or local ISPs – agree there’s a problem with capacity, but everyone has a different take on whether the bottleneck is at the global, national or local level.

Yet other experts suggest predictions of the web’s demise are greatly exaggerated, delivered to further the vested interests of the reports’ authors. Industry insiders suggest a combination of corporate greed and naivety are more likely causes of concern for UK surfers than a critical shortage of data capacity. Who’s telling the truth? We cut through the hype and talk to leading networking experts to discover whether the net really is in terminal decline.

Video nasties

As far back as January 2007, PC Pro reported concern among well-respected internet providers who claimed the web’s arteries were beginning to clog. Many believe the threat remains real, and it starts at the very heart of the web, in the major cables that connect Britain with the rest of the world. “The twin trends causing this are an explosion in demand, largely fuelled by the growth in video traffic and the lack of investment in new, functioning capacity,” claims Igal Brightman, global managing partner at Deloitte. “Without further investment, bottlenecks are likely to become apparent in some of the internet’s backbones, the terabit-capable pipes exchanging traffic between continents.”

The internet consists of a series of privately built and owned interconnected networks. Like a physical road network, which includes motorways and country roads, the internet is made up of high-speed connections (fibre and underground cable) and lower-speed local links (copper and coaxial connections), with traffic handled by switching equipment. As more traffic mounts, the chance of bottlenecks increases, where the flow of bits slows down and causes traffic jams. Never before has the web carried such a huge level of freight: the rise of YouTube, BitTorrent and social networking sites with video means the weight of traffic now makes the M25 look like a sleepy backwater.

What’s more, the sheer weight of traffic could conceivably surge far beyond today’s levels. According to a recent white paper from Cisco, should internet television become mainstream, “two hours per day of standard-definition television viewing via the internet would put a household at 54GB per month. A household downloading 12 hours of high-definition video per week and four hours of standard-definition video viewing per day would easily exceed the most generous of service provider bandwidth caps of around 200GB per month.”

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