Is our Internet future in danger?

Signs point to a bandwidth shortage, and avoiding that may mean you'll pay more for broadband usage

Video usage could bring us to the breaking point

The main culprit today for high-bandwidth usage is video, both user-generated and commercially available. Carriers underestimated the growth in video usage, says Forrester Research analyst Lisa Pierce, who cites an AT&T claim that video counts for 40 percent of the Internet traffic it carries -- up from almost none three years ago. An AT&T spokesperson says that 5 percent of its subscribers account for half its broadband traffic usage, and cites those heavy users as why it's exploring new pricing models.

It's easy to miss how much media services eat up bandwidth. So Gartner analyst Jopling has come up with a rough consumption guide for what his provider's 96GB monthly usage cap supports: 32 hours of interactive gaming, or 48,000 photos, or 900,000 e-mails, or 24 HD movie downloads. Downloading a single high-definition movie eats up 4GB to 5GB, which also happens to be the total amount of data that the average broadband subscriber downloads in a month.

As video is increasingly downloaded over the Internet, carriers could see their customers' bandwidth usage quadruple or more. Video providers are egging customers on: Amazon.com, Blockbuster Video, and Netflix now all offer various movie-download services, including options that stream videos straight to TiVo digital video recorders. To customers, these are simply convenient delivery options; the fact that they consume so much bandwidth is rarely considered.

And today's 10- to 22-year-olds will push the envelope even further, notes Gartner analyst Amanda Sabia. In several focus groups she has run, this cohort says it expects to use video even more than today's typical user but expects to pay no more for the bandwidth. Forrester's Pierce agrees the bandwidth-consumption problem is only going to get worse as next-generation students make their way into companies. They've been weaned on the idea that video, music, and gaming are essentially free and unlimited, and thus act accordingly. "Students live in very wired areas," Pierce says, "which is great for education, but it's not the real world."

The real issue is not video, but the ever-increasing use of the Internet for content and services that take more and more bits each generation, notes Pierce. "What is 'high usage' will be a moving target for the rest of our lives," she adds. For example, Facebook traffic represents about 10 percent of the total Internet usage, she notes. Then there's the plethora of YouTube videos, online gaming, multimedia-rich sites like Disney, and sites like ESPN that automatically launch videos when people visit them, all consuming massive chunks of bandwidth capacity.

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