Is our Internet future in danger?

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

"I am concerned that we're seeing a lot of stuff from Web sites being incredibly, overly rich," says Jack Wilson, enterprise architect at Amerisure Insurance, which has a large remote workforce dependent on residential broadband service to do their jobs. "It can even be a problem inside the network. Half a dozen people streaming audio could cause a big bump in our pipe even to one of our remote locations, even to a T1 line."

Contributing to the problem is how content is distributed. For example, peer-to-peer traffic -- whether to share videos, game-playing, or music -- is very inefficient compared to streaming content from a single provider, notes Pierce. The reason is that the network architectures weren't designed for peer-to-peer, which assumes as much bandwidth in each direction, while broadband networks give most of their bandwidth to downloading. That means the uploading channel gets clogged much faster, and the downloading channel may sit empty waiting for the upload to complete.

That's why Japan's telecom ministry is investigating a rearchitecting of its broadband network to work better with peer-to-peer traffic -- emerging peer-to-peer protocols may actually make that sort of traffic more efficient than traditional traffic on such a rearchitected network. But such a rearchitecture effort will be costly and take many years, so even if it is a better model, it won't be in place any time soon, Pierce says.

Companies are also adding to the capacity problem, although not on the scale of video. Many allow more and more employees to work from home, whether periodically or full-time. Remote tools such as VoIP, VPNs, and most notably, videoconferencing, consume bandwidth at little or no cost to the company. Such services don't consume nearly as much bandwidth as video, and the current broadband infrastructure could handle them, notes Gartner analyst Jopling. But video and future bandwidth hogs could get in the way of such services' availability. "It's unrealistic to have all entertainment be delivered digitally [over the Internet]," he says. "You would need fiber to the home [everywhere] to be able to have unlimited capacity."

The pressures against increasing capacity

It's no secret that Americans' appetite for broadband has been enormous ever since cable and DSL service appeared on the menu only a few years ago. Today, more than half of adult Americans have broadband at home, with nearly a third subscribing to a premium broadband service that gives them a faster Internet connection, according to a recent survey by Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The top 20 cable and telephone providers -- such as Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner for cable, as well as AT&T, Qwest, and Verizon for telecom -- boast nearly 65 million subscribers, representing about 94 percent of the US market, Leichtman Research Group reports.

With that level of penetration, the carriers are now moving to open up the pipelines. Verizon, for instance, is investing US$23 billion to roll out by 2010 in many parts of the country its FiOS fiber-optic network, which provides Internet, television, and telephone service at near-100Mbps download speeds. Meanwhile, AT&T is spending US$4.6 billion to upgrade its network with fiber optics.

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