Warning : The End of the Internet As We Know (and
Alarming Implications for Everyone
Is our internet usage
to become metered (again), just like our electricity usage?
Part 1 of a two part article - see also part 2, 'The New
Internet Charging Paradigm'.
The world as we know it today
is increasingly built on a paradigm - unlimited fast free
internet for both information service providers and information
Invaluable services we have
come to rely on would not be viable if they and we both had to
pay for the internet data consumed by such services (this sounds
paradoxical but remains true, nonetheless).
Is the 'free ride' we've all
enjoyed with our internet access about to come to a crashing
halt, and, if so, what will replace it?
The Evolution of Internet
Access and Connection Speeds
At the start of the internet
age (let's consider this to be some time in the early/middle
1990s), we connected via dialup modem, typically at speeds
ranging from 14.4kbps to 33.6 kbps and we paid per hour of
At the risk of stating the
obvious, internet connection speeds have steadily increased,
while internet connection charges have steadily decreased. One
third factor - the amount of content available on the internet
has also skyrocketed.
It is harder to quantify the
costs of internet connections and the amount of data on the
internet, but it is easy to compare connecting speeds. The
14.4 kbps - 33.6 kbps have increased and are now typically 100
to 1000 times faster than they were 15 years ago.
The bottom line, today, is
an apparently very happy one - we are spending more time on the
internet than ever before, downloading more than ever before per
hour of connect time, and paying less for the best cable,
ethernet or DSL
providers than ever before.
The Onset of Unlimited Internet
One of the watershed moments
in the evolution of our access to the internet, and the cost of
this access, was AOL's $19.95 a month fee for unlimited dialup
internet connectivity, first launched in 1996.
If you're old enough to
remember that far back, you probably remember the barrage of
first free diskettes containing the AOL software, included in
just about every computer magazine and all sorts of other media
too, and subsequently CDs rather than diskettes.
This was a key breakthrough
- unlimited internet for $20/month. Back then, which was
still prior even to the launch of 56kbps modems, no-one ever
thought of limiting the amount of data one could download from
the internet, because no-one either could or would download all
In addition, ISPs would
typically oversell their own incoming bandwidth ten-fold, so
even if one were to be able to drive one's modem at an average
of half its rated speed, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that
would still only be a maximum of about 4GB of data a month.
Of course, not even the most addicted person had their modem on
all day every day, and the average user would download vastly
less than 1GB/month, and more like 100MB. What was there
to download, anyway? There was no video back then.
Primarily, there were only fairly plain webpages and email.
AOL's one-time massive
marketing presence created a new internet paradigm, which meant
all subsequent internet connection contracts from all competing
ISPs ended up similarly offering both unlimited connection time
and unlimited data transferred.
With the advent of DSL and
cable internet connections, the concept of charging for connect
time became meaningless anyway, because such internet
connections were always on, and always connected. As for
charging for data instead of connect time, almost no-one gave
any thought to such an outré concept.
The Benefit of the Dot Bomb
The next interesting twist
was the dot com explosion becoming the dot bomb crash.
This actually benefitted us as internet users in a subtle way.
Companies that had invested
millions and billions of dollars in laying new internet
connections across the country went bankrupt, allowing their
massive investments in internet infrastructure to be bought for
pennies on the dollar. For much of the 2000s, we enjoyed
an internet infrastructure that was both under-utilized and also
which had its costs of development written off through the
accounting gyrations of the dot bomb.
Growing connection speeds
encouraged the development of applications to make use of the
faster connections and greater interactivity, and more powerful
computer processors made applications such as realtime video
compressing and decompressing possible. Video streaming
became commonplace, and the internet itself was becoming so omni-present,
so fast, and so reliable, that it was becoming possible to plan
one's life and business based on storing everything not on a
local computer but 'in the cloud' somewhere in the internet.
In 2007, Youtube alone was
responsible for more internet traffic than was on the entire
internet back in 2000. That statistic is all the more
amazing when you realize Youtube was launched little more than
one year earlier - in late 2005.
Internet traffic has been
consistently growing by almost exactly 50% every year (here's a
fascinating article which calculated the 50% growth rate way
back in 1998, and which remained accurate even during the
extraordinary growth of the 2000s and on to 2011), and nowadays
Youtube serves almost three billion videos every day.
Youtube not only serves more
and more videos every day, but each of these videos is taking up
more and more bandwidth, due to Youtube supporting higher
definition formats. Five years before Youtube started,
radio stations were struggling to stream low bit-rate audio that
sounded horrible; today Youtube is streaming broadcast quality
(and better) video.
Sometimes we complacently
accept the amazing progress that is occuring without stopping to
appreciate it. This is definitely a case in point.
A Voracious New Consumer of
There's a new technology
that is at present transitioning from something lurking in the
margins of the internet to becoming a mainstream part of the
internet and its traffic demands - the streaming of movies, and
not just in highly compressed small bandwidth format, but in
'HD' format high quality streams. This is being driven
initially by Netflix, and other companies are leaping onto the
bandwagon at all, with Amazon rumored to be about to release a
streaming service too. These streaming services typically
offer unlimited movie streaming, and at bandwidths of up to
6Mbps (in comparison, early internet radio streaming services
operated at 32kbps - nearly 200 times slower).
So compare these two
numbers. Little more than ten years ago, the average
person used something less than 1GB of internet data a month
(and more commonly no more than a tenth that). Today,
streaming a single two hour movie can consume as much as 5GB of
data - more in two hours than an average user formerly used in a
A growing 'perfect storm'
This growth rate is not
consistent with the internet usage increasing by 50% every year.
Adding high quality video streaming represents a huge jump
further up in internet usage. And at the same time, most
of the excess internet capacity that provided the basis of 'a
free ride' during most of the 2000s is now reaching maximum
utilization. There's little or no remaining spare/surplus
internet capacity, meaning that additional capacity will require
new and costly investments in infrastructure.
The interesting thing is
that with the extremely fast internet connections everyone has,
there is now a much larger divergence between the data consumed
by a 'light' user of the internet and a 'heavy' user. A
light user may use anything from 0.1 GB up to maybe 1 or 2 GB.
But a heavy user, with a 10Mbps or faster connection, could in
theory download up to 3 TB - three terabytes, or 3,000 GB of
data a month.
So whereas in the past there
was a spread of one hundred-fold or so between light and heavy
users, now there can be a spread of one thousand-fold or more.
A 'one size fits all' model is now much more open to abuse than
it was when AOL first announced its unlimited plans, 15 years
Add all this up and you get,
to use a much overworked term, a perfect storm. Can you
guess what this leads to?
Please click on to the
second part of this two part article.
This is the first part of a two part article -
please clock on to part 2, 'The New
Internet Charging Paradigm'.
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11 Feb 2011, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.