Scare Stories

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 04-04-2007

Why the surge of sky-is-falling rhetoric in the early months of 2007? Three possible explanations include misapplication of anecdotal evidence, the conflation of long-term and short-term views, and political gamesmanship.

The rise of video traffic and pervasive, widespread broadband are clearly real phenomena, obvious to anyone watching YouTube via high-speed wireless at their favorite coffee shop. And the numbers behind that kind of quotidian experience are huge:

Video chat, for example, requires ten times the bandwidth of another fast-growing application, voice. Deloitte's 2007 Telecommunications Predictions report says the number of Internet users topped one billion in the last year, and is growing. People see a difference in the usage, do some quick math, and panic.

But perception is ahead of reality. So far—at least when it comes to Web traffic—there is less than meets the eye to the YouTube revolution. Streaming video, expected to drive huge traffic growth in the future, accounts for just 2 percent of traffic.

And yet the future is coming fast. The real bandwidth hogs will be the next generations of video offerings, including full-length television programs and movies marketed for mass consumption over the net. Throw in high-definition standards for user-created video, and Internet traffic could soon surpass 50 exabytes a year—ten times the current flow, says Brett Swanson of the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank.

In January, Swanson wrote a Wall Street Journal article titled, "The Coming Exaflood." In it he discusses the need for investment in additional and upgraded infrastructure to handle this expected demand, and concludes that the telecom industry needs the right to set differential pricing for Internet transport to make investments worthwhile. He casts the discussion around "network neutrality," which keeps providers from prioritizing traffic from preferred users, e.g., those who pay more for service.

And therein may lie some of the impetus for the recent spate of fear-mongering: Telecoms are poor-mouthing existing capacity to make their case against net neutrality. Phil Kerpen, policy director for group called Americans for Prosperity, made the link explicit in a January 2007 Forbes column, "Information Super Traffic Jam," in which he cited the Deloitte report with the utmost credulity. "Uncertainty over potential network neutrality requirements is one of the major factors delaying necessary network upgrades," he argues. "Without enormous new investments to upgrade the Internet's infrastructure, download speeds could crawl to a standstill."

The net's near-term capacity aside, there are some limitations to this logic, which ignores market conditions, improving technology, and other possible fixes beyond differential pricing. Grouses one industry analyst, who asked not to be identified for fear of angering the people who buy his research: "The predictions about congestion this year is a bunch of political posturing."