In a sense, the debate over whether or not there is going to be enough bandwidth to satisfy ever-increasing demand is a relief because it is fairly straightforward: There either will be or won't be. There is some, but not too much, gray area.
As part of IT Business Edge's look ahead to 2009, I contacted Andrew Odlyzko, a professor and the Director of the Digital Technology Center at the University of Minnesota to follow up on a couple of posts we did that mentioned his research. I asked, more or less, if the bits and bytes well will run dry this year. Odlyzko's response is good news:
Carriers, service providers, and vendors have all been increasing bandwidth at significant rates over the last few years, in response to increasing traffic demand from customers. I expect that to continue, most likely augmented by a push from the new administration for infrastructure improvements, given how important broadband is for the economy. I do not expect the Internet to become clogged, but the precise rate of growth will be very important for the industry and the country as a whole.
There are two separate areas of concern. Odlyzko, Nermetes Research and others pretty much focus on the huge digital pipes that form the core of the Internet. The local distribution network also is a worry. The growth of local fiber networks such as Verizon's FiOS and 4G -- Long Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMax -- will help reduce local bottlenecks. Ironically, the increases these technologies will provide to the edges of the network will encourage creation of bandwidth-hungry services that will increase the pressure on the middle of the network.
Here is where that little bit of wiggle room comes in: Yesterday, I linked to a post from Gary Kim that suggests the success of "over the top" video may lead to various traffic shaping and related strategies that would make the Internet's use of bandwidth more efficient. The problem simply is that the Internet wasn't meant to support data-crazy services such as high definition movies. Everyone wins-and Odlyzko is proven correct -- if the popularity of such services drives carriers and service providers to institute techniques that make the same amount of bandwidth go farther.
This New York Times story focuses on only a relatively small source of the increasing bandwidth consumption: lodges and conference centers. These sources may add a bit disproportionately due to the fact that professionals attending conferences and conventions are more likely to employ bandwidth-hungry applications than others. In the big picture, however, the piece is instructive and gets the overall flavor right. Quite simply, people's use of bandwidth on day-to-day applications is growing at almost an exponential rate.
Wireless and fiber projects are being accompanied by efforts to curtail bandwidth use. The most noteworthy -- and controversial -- are being made by Comcast. The bottom line is that the company-which PC World reports has launched a system aimed at controlling and even cutting off bandwidth hogs-is addressing the issue. Whether that is a byproduct of a more nefarious goal of increasing its profits or a good-faith effort to protect the majority of lighter users is, in this context, largely besides the point.
There is no question that bandwidth demands on both the core and the outer extremities of the Internet are exploding. The disagreement on whether the core of the Net is in danger will likely be settled relatively soon. The outer distribution network, while stressed, seems to be in good shape as providers create an increasing reservoir of capacity.