I’ve spent most of my adult life assuming that technology was in an endless upward spiral that would always provide me with a never ending supply of a) fast computers, b) cheap storage, and c) massive bandwidth. You can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that we are apparently on the verge of a global bandwidth shortage. If true, that would certainly change most of my assumptions about the future of media, computing, and civilization as we know it.
My first inkling that we might have a serious problem came last week when a Google representative, speaking at the Cable Europe Congress, announced:
The Web infrastructure, and even Google’s (infrastructure) doesn’t scale. It’s not going to offer the quality of service that consumers expect.
One cable executive called it “the best news of the day”. Why is it that good news for cable companies is always bad news for consumers? And why is it that Google of all companies is just now getting around to breaking this news to us? Seems like they might have mentioned this before they spent a fortune buying YouTube.
I was still pondering how serious this bandwidth shortage might be when I read that a bird flu pandemic could bring the Internet to it’s knees.
How would a flu pandemic affect the Internet? Easy. Remember years ago when we were told that one day we’d all be able to telecommute to our jobs? Despite the fact that most employees now have broadband and a home computer that prediction never really came to pass. Well, it turns out that your boss was just waiting for the plague. Once the bird flu hits we’ll all be expected to telecommute. The current thinking is that a massive influx of telecommuters making VPN connections to their offices would have a substantial impact on available bandwidth. When that happens, it’s goodbye online video. Just don’t forget to clock out at the end of the day.
It wasn’t all that long ago that we were talking about a global bandwidth glut. During the dot com boom companies actually went under by overbuilding infrastructure. So what’s changed? In a word, everything.
P2P applications like BitTorrent are partially to blame. The firm CacheLogic has estimated that P2P applications use between 60 and 80 percent of capacity on consumer ISP networks. Others have suggested that spam comprises 80% of all Internet traffic. Between all of the spam and video file sharing that leaves -40% to -60% of Internet capacity for everything else we do online. Based on those numbers it’s amazing you’re even able to read this article.
Is our dependence on ubiquitous broadband a fatal flaw in our plans for the future, or are these dire warnings overstated? Chances are we won’t really know for sure until something unexpected happens.
In the meantime, the mere thought of a bandwidth shortage probably has the old-line media types jumping for joy. It’s not just the cable operators who would stand to benefit if the Internet collapsed. The broadcast networks would be free to ignore the Internet and go back to business as usual, newspapers and magazines might start seeing subscriber growth, and phone companies could go back to their switched networks and forget about all of this VoIP stuff. In other words, it would be the 1980’s all over again.
And all of those cool new media services that you were planning on using? Turns out they could be a lot less cool and a lot more expensive than you were thinking they might be.
Then again, this could be an elaborate ploy by Google to buy more time to ramp up their IP television service and catch the cable operators off guard when the service is finally ready.
Or not. That’s the worst part of this story. We don’t really know anything for sure.
How far would you be willing to go to ensure there was enough bandwidth to go around? Would you willingly limit your Internet access to a small selection of lower bandwidth applications like email and limited web browsing? Would you stop playing online games? Stop using P2P networks or watching online videos?
Would today’s Internet even be worth using if there were bandwidth limitations?