Is the internet doomed?

“To suggest that we might run out of capacity is nonsense, a farce,” Kurt-Elli adds. “There’s loads of fibre and capacity – the big question is who should pay for it.”

Is the internet doomed?

The idea of pay-as-you-go bandwidth is never popular and media companies such as Google, among others, have been campaigning to keep the status quo. Net neutrality is everything, they say; without it the internet would be carved up among the telcos, with services and applications companies left to fight for scraps. More importantly, according to Google, there’s no real need to worry about bandwidth or an internet slowdown because the capacity is there – if only the cable and telco operators would switch it on. “We don’t think net capacity is a pressing issue,” a Google spokesperson told PC Pro. “We’re far from running out of capacity, especially at the backbone of the internet, where each fibre that currently carries about 40GB/sec could carry trillions of bits per second if we used the full spectrum of colours that can be transmitted through that fibre. Outside Japan and maybe one or two other places in Asia, there are few ‘last mile’ connections that operate at anything close to backbone speeds,” Google claims.

Academics agree. “Really we’re only scratching the surface of what we could do with fibre,” believes Andrew Odlyzko, a director at the University of Minnesota’s Digital Technology Center. “If you lumped together all the internet traffic in the USA, it could be squeezed down one or at most two fibre strands. And on most routes you have hundreds of strands.”

Experts believe we currently use between 5% and 40% of available fibre globally. The same is true on transatlantic routes. So why are we being told the network is creaking under the strain? Because it costs money to light the dark fibre that’s already available and nobody currently is willing to pay for that bandwidth.

Trickledown factor

Backbone, of course, isn’t everything; by the time broadband reaches the home it has been passed through several carriers and, in the case of ADSL, squeezed down copper wires designed for telephony. Copper’s limitations are all too familiar: signal quality and speed degrade with distance from your exchange, weather conditions and a host of other variables.

“The most serious bottlenecks are around the edges, where the fibres and backbone meet the copper,” says Elfed Thomas, CEO of H20 Networks, which lays fibre cable through sewage pipes to reduce infrastructure costs. “It’s like turning off a motorway and on to a country lane, and as you get more traffic the problems gets much worse. There’s plenty of capacity on the motorways – perhaps only 5% is used – but you can’t get into Reading.”

Critics, not least PC Pro, have highlighted the need to improve the UK’s “next generation” infrastructure. Even the normally placid Ofcom chief, Ed Richards, recently accepted that “today’s access network, at some point in the future, will run out of steam. Consumers will demand faster and faster access. Very few people agree on exactly when this is going to happen, but many people do agree it is only a matter of time.”

Many end users will never enjoy truly fast broadband until the UK runs fibre to every home. BT has told PC Pro that won’t happen any time soon because: “We just don’t think consumers need more bandwidth or would be willing to pay for it, and we won’t be paying out £20 billion to make that bandwidth available until the demand is there.” This from the company whose BT Vision box is capable of streaming HD video, but can’t because of a lack of bandwidth.

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