Digital Malthusianism

Prior to a live spiked debate on the ‘internet crunch’, Rob Killick slams the scaremongering of those who claim the internet might soon collapse.

Rob Killick

Topics Science & Tech

In 1997, Bob Metcalfe, distinguished inventor of Ethernet, had to eat his words, on paper mashed up in milk, after predicting that the internet would collapse in 1996. Metcalfe also predicted at the same time that Microsoft was going down the tubes. Dangerous, this prediction business (especially for the digestive system).

Since then, there have been numerous scares about the imminent slowing down or collapse of the internet. The latest have been about the impact of Voice Over IP – that is, using the internet for phone calls – and now there is handwringing concern about the impact of new developments like the BBC iPlayer, which enable people to watch TV programmes via the web.

Is there going to be an ‘internet crunch’? Some reports now ask if initiatives such as the BBC iPlayer might ‘lead to the eventual collapse of the world wide web’. Are we heading for breakdown – or is this another Bob Metcalfe moment?

There is no doubt that demands on the internet are increasing and will continue to do so. It is estimated that, currently, total internet traffic is doubling every two years, or maybe even faster than that (1). The increased use of the web to download films and music will undoubtedly add to the strain on the existing system.

Downloading a film in the new high-definition Blu-Ray format takes up as much bandwidth as 2.5million emails or 100million web page downloads (2). Clearly, there has been a step change in bandwidth demand coming down the line.

Yet what is remarkable about the web is that not only has it not collapsed or slowed down over the years; it has responded positively every time extra demands are put on it – not bad for a system that has never been planned out but instead has grown in an organic fashion. More people are using the web now than ever before – and the connection speeds for more and more people are faster than ever before, while the range of goods, services and sources of information available via the web grow vaster every day.

When we look at who is raising fears about demand exceeding supply – and the web possibly collapsing as a result – it seems clear that there is a large element of special pleading.

Tiscali, a leading internet service provider faced with having to invest more in the infrastructure of the internet as demand grows, is demanding that the BBC should contribute to the cost of developing the web, as the alternative would be for Tiscali to get its customers to pay (3).

The BBC says its iPlayer service, which provides an archive of BBC TV programmes shown over the previous seven days, now accounts for between three and five per cent of all internet traffic in Britain. ‘We are having an impact, but we don’t believe it is a great one’, says the Beeb (4). Yet Tiscali accuses the BBC of deliberately underplaying the problem, and says that ISPs are now having to ‘overbuild capacity in our networks’ and pass the cost on to customers – ‘in effect a BBC tax levied on top of the licence fee’ (5). Yet might Tiscali, and some other ISPs, be accused of deliberately overplaying the problem of the coming ‘internet crunch’ as a way getting the BBC or the government to fund the expansion of the internet infrastructure?

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch’s News International is using the same issue to beat the BBC over the supposed unfair competitive advantage given to it by the TV licence system. James Murdoch, who oversees News International and is chairman of BSkyB, recently described the iPlayer as a ‘big intervention’ in the broadband TV market: ‘I’m not saying it is a bad product, but I am saying it does crowd out competition and innovation.’ (6)

Away from this special pleading, the response within the telecoms industry itself has been to point out that there are many options for coping with the extra demands that the iPlayer and similar services are creating. After all, the telecoms companies, who are now largely running the show in terms of broadband infrastructure, have great experience in managing the increasing network demand for phone services. In April, it was reported that, right now, BT has started ‘upgrading its exchange to provide broadband connections running at up to 24 megabits per second – three times the present limit of 8Mbps – thanks to a technology called ADSL2+, which transmits the data signal down the line on a carrier frequency twice as high as the present ADSL2’ (7). This should help the broadband infrastructure to cope fairly easily with increased demand for video and music files.

Yet there will still be those who are prepared to believe the worst. Because what seems to be driving today’s panic about an internet crunch is not only the needs of ISPs and media competitors, who have an interest in stoking up fear about the BBC and others causing a collapse, but also a general sense of cultural pessimism. In a social atmosphere of Malthusianism, it would be a surprise if the capacity of the internet to deal with growing demand were to escape today’s fear-laden, anti-growth outlook. The millennium started with a panic about the ‘millennium bug’ causing a massive breakdown in technology; it is continuing with angst about a future fall of the internet.

We need a more positive attitude towards the internet. So how about this: it was at the Central Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) that Tim Berners-Lee and others invented the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. Now CERN is about to conduct a fabulous experiment to discover the nature of mass, and perhaps to create a black hole (itself a source of fear and anxiety to some) (8). In order to cope with the huge amounts of data needed to conduct the experiment around the world the scientists engaged in the project have created a new computer Grid system, basically a new internet, which is 10,000 times faster than the current one. This Grid has already been used to aid research for anti-malaria drugs and in the fight against avian flu and has the potential to be rolled out commercially (9).

Human ingenuity, eh? Nothing – not even BBC iPlayer showing repeats of The Apprentice – could cause such ingenuity to collapse.

Rob Killick is CEO of cScape and is speaking at the spiked debate Traffic Jam: are we heading for an internet crunch?. The debate takes place at 7pm on Tuesday 8 July at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in Parliament Square, London. It is a free debate, but to avoid disappointment book your place now. Email {encode=”” title=””} to reserve a place. Click here for more information about the debate.

(8) Coming soon: superfast internet, The Times (London), 6 April 2008

(9) Grid: more bytes for science, CERN

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Topics Science & Tech


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