Is the info highway turning into the M25?

A report on last night’s lively spiked debate on the internet crunch. PLUS: Exclusive new stats on the ‘bandwidth famine’.

Joel Cohen

Topics Science & Tech

Mick Hume, chairing the proceedings, kicked off last night’s spiked debate on the ‘internet crunch’ with an apt question: ‘Is the information superhighway turning into the M25?’ That is, is the internet now so clogged by audio and visual content and too-many-users that it’s becoming slow, congested and frustrating? The M25 analogy remained peculiarly prescient throughout the lively debate, which took place at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in London, as speakers and audience members touched on questions of expansion and furores over funding, with a dash of doom-mongering, too.

Rob Killick, CEO of cScape, was the first to speak. He announced, with confidence, that ‘fears over the internet’s decline are nothing new’; some predicted that it would collapse in the late 1990s, and later had to eat their words. In its short history, the internet has proved both robust and flexible, even as the number of users doubles year on year, and there is no reason to believe, said Killick, that the internet will slow down now or collapse as more people speak, listen to music or watch films over the web.

Rob Killick, CEO of cScape (click play, then click on the video to view)

Killick overtly challenged the pessimism and populist Malthusianism of contemporary debate. He said that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and media companies were stoking up fears about an internet collapse as part of a special-pleading attempt to get some financial backing from government or the BBC (whose iPlayer is often blamed for slowing the internet down). We should have faith in the sturdiness of the internet, and also in the ingenuity of human innovation, said Killick. Instead of panicking about future strains on the internet – such as the increasing abundance of ‘heavy’ (large) content and the fact that more people will be accessing online services in China and the developing world – Killick said we should be optimistic about the new innovations of telecommunications companies (Telcos) and of projects carried out by the likes of the Central Organisation for Nuclear Research. ‘They have created a computer network 10,000 times faster than the current internet’, he pointed out.

David Crow, media and tech correspondent for London’s business freesheet City AM, spoke next. He started by showing a clip from the film Ocean’s 11, in which the main hustler and casino thief, played by George Clooney, points out that there is a law which forces casinos to hold enough cash to cover every chip in play on the casino floor – anywhere between $70million and $120million – even though it is extraordinarily unlikely that every chip will be a winner.

Crow argued that the casino’s approach (have enough money just in case) is the opposite of the approach taken by ISPs, who rely on the fact that we won’t all be using their services for the same thing at the same time to justify not expanding the networks very much. Arguing that this approach is a major cause of stagnation in the development of the internet infrastructure, Crow said: ‘I don’t think that the fact that our network is not facing an imminent collapse is a reason for ignoring that we need to upgrade it.’

His solution? We should be weaned off our ‘addiction to £10-a-month price plans’. Crow gave us two imaginary characters: Mabel and Pete. Mabel emails her son in Australia every now and then, while Pete uses the internet for hours everyday to send emails, watch films and to download ‘other image-based files’ (‘which I won’t describe in such polite company’, said Crow), and yet both Mabel and Pete pay the same rate for their internet access. Crow said the way forward was fairly to charge people for what they use, rather than having a catch-all monthly fee, which might increase funding and incentivise development of more infrastructure.

David Crow of City AM (click play, then click on the video to view)

Christopher Marsden, lecturer in law and telecommunications at the University of Essex, split his speech into five parts.

The first – truth – referred to the need for ISPs to be more honest with their end-users on issues such as funding development. Secondly, said Marsden, we need to question the form and set-up of the internet if ISPs are to deliver advertising (where the real money is) and thus help fund the work they need to do. Third, we should get more serious about ‘net neutrality’, which is currently at risk. There should, said Marsden, be ‘equal access to the internet, [where the] broadband carriers should not be permitted to use their market power to discriminate against competing… content. Just as telephone companies are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say.’

Fourth, there needs to be a collective European approach to the issues of laying new cable and to ISP regulation of the internet. And finally, said Marsden, the government and others should be ‘be careful what they wish for’: if we encourage ISPs to become preoccupied with regulating the internet, and with issues of ‘social responsibility’, their eye will be taken off the more pressing issue of developing the internet.

Christopher Marsden of the University of Essex
(click play, then click on the video to view)

Andrew Orlowski, executive editor of the online magazine the Register, made a distinction between the internet and the web: the former being a mechanical group of networks working mostly behind the scenes to provide us with services. The latter being the holistic content that you are partaking in when you read things online.

Orlowski argued eloquently for a more real, grounded discussion about the future of the internet, one which recognises the importance of the ‘physics and economics’ of improving the infrastructure rather than retreating into the idealised, fantasy image of Web 2.0. Orlowski argued that the fascination with Web 2.0 and user-generated content was like ‘intelligent design for the left’: a fantasy version of the world which allows people to get self-validation online but which reveals little about the real workings of the internet or what needs to be done to improve it.

On the question of who should fund and lead the development of the internet, some audience members questioned the idea that ISPs should be primarily responsible; surely Telcos, and even mobile operators (who in the next few years need to install fibre optic connections for their mobiles anyway), should play a greater role? Christopher Marsden agreed that progressive steps have been taken by the mobile industry to install fibre, but Andrew Orlowski said fibre is not the panacea to all our problems. Japanese ISPs had discovered that P2P traffic conveyed using ‘dirty’, hard to manage protocols like Bittorrent soon saturated the fastest fibre networks. Voluntary copyright reform would help, he said.

Andrew Orlowski, executive editor of the Register
(click play, then click on the video to view)

One audience member suggested that the panel had been ‘sanguine about growth’, arguing that around 2.5 billion technologically enabled new citizens would be entering the market in the next few years, and that the internet – a fundamental part of market trade – should be subsidised by state intervention. David Crow challenged this idea; he said there is not a sufficient appetite for new taxation to ensure the growth of the internet. Rob Killick took a more confrontational tone: ‘Government would be inept.’ He said the market had ‘kind of worked’, in its usual half-useful, half-destructive fashion: so the telecom companies which, like dying warriors, laid the cables for the new internet have now gone out of business – but their cables remain, and remain useful for vast numbers of people. Better to trust an unwieldy market that accidentally gets things done, rather than a useless, vision-free state, suggested Killick.

The debate was lively, with the well-informed audience keeping the speakers on their toes. Rightly, the discussion focused in large part on the technical, practical issue of how to expand the internet and who should do it – not simply to keep at bay a mostly imaginary ‘internet collapse’, but also because it is good for all of us to expand this modern means of communication, media access and ideas-sharing.

Joel Cohen is an intern at spiked.

Are we facing a ‘bandwidth famine’?

As a result of the debate kickstarted by spiked on the ‘internet crunch’, we’ve been given exclusive access to a new study commissioned by the Centre for Integrated Photonics (CIP), which claims that the world’s consumers are now facing a bandwidth famine. CIP’s new white paper, which will be published in full at the end of this week, argues:

  • Bandwidth demand is set to exceed 160 Tbits/s by 2010 – an annual demand that exceeds the equivalent of the combined network usage of the previous decade (1998-2008).
  • Use of online video and data services, including the BBC’s iPlayer and YouTube, has seen demand for internet bandwidth soar. The BBC reported that over 21million programmes were requested on iPlayer in April 2008 alone, only four months after going live.

The author of the new independent study, David Payne of the Institute of Advanced Telecommunications at Swansea University, has calculated that the increasing demands are no blip:

‘Around the turn of the millennium, we used to talk about a bandwidth “glut”. There was a lot of idle capacity. Networks now are being used in a way that few people foresaw, for example early take-up of personalised video, rather than broadcast television, dominating internet video services.

‘By 2018, usage could grow to 40 to 100 times the levels seen in networks today. However, it is difficult to see how operators can economically grow existing network architectures to meet this demand.’

David Smith, Chief Technology Officer for CIP, says: ‘The Global Bandwidth Study demonstrates that current telecom networks will be unable to cope with the scaling demands for bandwidth. A step-change in technology is needed that can not only deliver this bandwidth demand at economic cost but also significantly reduce the amount of energy required to power and cool it. The current technology will be physically too large and energy-hungry to deliver the levels of bandwidth growth demanded by users.’

With demand increasing, and the old infrastructure beginning to creak, it seems the internet is set to enter a turbulent period. But while there’s little doubt that technological obstacles loom large, is this all that’s at issue? Where, for instance, will the cash for such innovation come from? Should the state be expected to foot the bill or can the market rise to the challenge? And what of the content itself? In the discussions over supply, is the quality of online material such that it can sustain demand? Whatever your view, this is a debate that looks set to run and run – watch this space.

CIP’s full white paper will be published later this week. To find out more, visit CIP’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Killick launched an attack on digital Malthusianism. Elsewhere, he outlined why the private arena is so important. To see the future of the internet, look East, suggested Norman Lewis. In 2001, Phil Mullan sought to get beyond the hype around the world wide web. Sandy Starr reported on a conference convened to protect internet freedom. Or read more at spiked issue Science and Technology.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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