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Mounting weight on the Web

In the next two years user demand for Internet across the world could well outpace the network capacity, making it difficult for you to access those websites you love despite a broadband connection, writes Rahul Sharma.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2007 03:07 IST
Rahul Sharma

Internet exaflood and brownouts are just around the corner, if you believe the doomsayers. In the next two years user demand for Internet across the world could well outpace the network capacity, making it difficult for you to access those websites you love even if you have a broadband connection.

An Internet gridlock would slow down businesses, markets, and economies as a wired world struggles to keep pace with rising demand, thanks to huge files being downloaded from websites such as YouTube or Google.

A recent study in the United States paints a bleak picture of the future — Internet users spending longer time in front of their computers as they try to download and send films, clips, pictures, emails and information. The US would of course be badly hit, but the rest of the world won't be spared either.

The study by Nemertes Research, which it claims to be the first ever to assess Internet infrastructure and model current/projected traffic patterns independent of one another, says that the financial investment required to bridge the gap between demand and capacity ranges from $42 billion to $55 billion, primarily to be spent on building broadband access capacity. This, the study says, is about 60-70 per cent over and above the $72 billion service providers are already planning to invest.

Globally, the required investment is estimated at $137 billion, again mainly in providing broadband access. In India, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will have to spend a huge amount of money if they want consumers to access the web easily. The flip side of this massive investment is that there lies a possibility of an increase in cost for the users.

The Internet works like a network of expressways and small bumpy rural roads. Just like traffic bottlenecks due to a sharp increase in the number of vehicles, the Internet also gets congested when too many users get on it. As the traffic slows down on a road, so does the Internet.

The Net is not what it used to be five years ago when many of the now-popular sites did not exist. Voice and bandwidth-intensive applications such as streaming and interactive video, peer-to-peer file transfer, music downloads and file sharing is redefining the Internet, the study says. Add the various wireless devices such as Blackberrys and mobile phones that a lot of us use today to access the Internet and you can see how much bandwidth is being gobbled up everyday.

Numbers tell the story as always. There are about 1.25 billion Internet users across the world, according to the Internet World Stats website, an increase of 244 per cent since 2000. The highest penetration — 70 per cent — is in North America. Asia, on the other hand, has the highest number of users - 459 million — but a low 12 per cent penetration. This will of course change as countries with huge populations such as India and China become wired in the years ahead.

So here's specific doomsspeak for you. Brownouts, or interruptions to applications you have become used to using on the Internet, would increase. It would take you longer to download the latest video from YouTube and take more than one attempt to complete an online financial transaction. Generally you might want to kick your computer for its slow performance not quite realising that the fault doesn't lie in the machine but in cyberspace which has suddenly shrunk.

More importantly, the study says, the impact of inadequate infrastructure would be felt very strongly on innovation — the next, Google or YouTube might not come up — not from a lack of user demand but because insufficient infrastructure would prevent applications and companies from emerging. Now that won't be very nice, would it?