Is the Internet Ready to Break?

Predictions of the Internet’s imminent demise have been around almost as long as public interest in the net itself. But lately there’s been something of a bull market in doom and gloom. Is it time to panic? Probably not.

According to a much-discussed report from the Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) group at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, the rapid rise of Web video and broadband net access “may overwhelm some of the Internet’s backbones” in 2007, while “ISPs may struggle to keep pace with demand.” The report notes that daily traffic at the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, one of the largest of the major hubs connecting different IP networks on the net, will reach two petabytes by October, almost double the usage in February 2006; traffic at the Amsterdam exchange (known as AMS-IX, or “Amsix”) for all of 2007 is expected to reach one exabyte, “equivalent to 500 times the data stored in all U.S. research libraries.”

Meanwhile, PBS personality Mark Stephens, a.k.a. Robert X. Cringley, oraculates that this will be remembered as the year “the net crashed (in the U.S.A). Video overwhelms the net and we all learn that the broadband ISPs have been selling us something they can’t really deliver.” And the influential technology Web site Ars Technica asks if service providers will have to “throttle” their networks to handle video-driven demand.

An Internet that is broken or seriously impaired at its core, disrupting the flow of information around the world, would obviously be bad for business in all kinds of ways. Problems with access to the net, which might not affect large businesses with dedicated access of their own, would be an issue for companies that rely on electronic commerce and other routine interchange with customers.

But as in the case of the most notorious prognostication of impending disaster, made in 1995 by Ethernet co-inventor Robert Metcalfe, the doom seers seem likely to eat their words. (Metcalfe famously did so quite literally, putting the column in which he made the prediction into a blender and consuming it in front of a conference audience.)

In fact, the supply of available bandwidth, especially at the core of the net, looks healthier than the pessimists would have it—or even bother to support with hard numbers when pressed to defend their arguments.

Deloitte TMT, which titled a key section of its report, “Reaching the Limits of Cyberspace,” was unwilling or unable to provide detailed back-up for its claims. Said a Deloitte spokeswoman by e-mail, “We don’t have more data that can be shared on questions re: Internet capacity.”

Henk Steenman, chief technology officer at AMS-IX, does have more data. He states flatly that the key European hub “will definitely have no problem with capacity for 2007 or 2008. We’ve seen 100 percent increases in traffic each year since 1997, and coped with it. A hundred percent a year is nothing special, and I’ve seen no indications it will grow faster than that.” Other hubs should be able to handle rapid growth, too, says Ken Cheng, vice president and general manager of the High Value Systems business unit at Foundry Networks Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., which sells heavy-duty switching and routing equipment. “It’s the same at Internet exchange points on every continent. I’m certain they will be able to handle the load,” Cheng says.

Eric Schoonover, a senior analyst with Washington, D.C.-based market research firm TeleGeography, agrees. “There’s nothing all that alarming going on,” he says. “This whole idea that the increase in traffic is going to break something or kill something, or the providers won’t keep up, seems foolhardy to me.” Video traffic and demand growth have been accounted for, he says, and “the network operators know how to scale.” TeleGeography research shows average global utilization of core Internet capacity in mid-2006 was only 34 percent, with peak utilization of 47 percent of available capacity.

And capacity at the core of the Internet continues to increase, says Google Inc. vice president Vint Cerf, a key figure in the development of the Internet. “There is available fiber and more wavelengths per fiber, so I do not see this as a serious threat,” he says. It is true that traffic growth is faster than capacity growth—average traffic across the net increased 75 percent last year, while capacity grew 47 percent, according to TeleGeography—so the long-term trend needs to be addressed. But, says Cerf, a near-term capacity problem “will be at the access edges to the net, and not in the core.” In other words, the traffic jams would be more likely at the points where people connect to the Internet via their service providers, rather than at the core of the net itself.

But even that “last mile” to homes looks reasonably healthy to the people in charge of it. “I don’t see anything specific in the way of capacity problems today, and my job is to manage capacity and growth in our network,” says Greg Collins, director of network and data center engineering for Earthlink Inc., the third-largest Internet service provider in the U.S.

Reports of severe problems at the core of the Internet and beyond in 2007 seem exaggerated. The more immediate impact of higher traffic on business users may be a flattening of the downward price curve they have so long enjoyed for telecom services—down nearly 60 percent over the last seven years—or even an uptick in cost. “My prediction is that in the industrialized world there may be increases in the price of bandwidth this year, and there will likely be increases in bandwidth costs for the next five years,” says Tony Kern, deputy managing partner of Deloitte’s U.S. TMT practice. (Kern did not work directly on reporting the document predicting capacity issues.) TeleGeography’s Schoonover is slightly more sanguine. “I don’t think corporate users have a lot to worry about,” he says. “Price decreases may end, but I don’t see increases this year.”

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