Consumer and corporate usage of the internet could outstrip network capacity by 2010 and a global spend of US$137bn will be required to ‘bridge the gap’ between demand and capacity, according to a new report.
A landmark study conducted by Nemertes Research warns that internet access infrastructure worldwide will cease to be adequate within the next three to five years.
"This groundbreaking analysis identifies a critical issue facing the internet – that we must take the necessary steps to build out network capacity or potentially face internet gridlock that could wreak havoc on internet services," said Larry Irving, co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).
"It's important to note that even if we make the investment necessary between now and 2010, we still might not be prepared for the next killer application or new internet-dependent business like Google or YouTube. The Nemertes study is evidence the exaflood is coming."
Voice and bandwidth-intensive applications such as streaming and interactive video, peer-to-peer file transfer and music downloads and file sharing are redefining the internet.
Nearly 75pc of US internet users watched an average of 158 minutes of online video in May and viewed more than 8.3 billion video streams, according to research by ComScore.
Additionally, wireless devices such as cell phones, BlackBerrys and gaming accessories provide consumers ever-increasing access to the internet, exponentially accelerating consumption of internet bandwidth, according to the Nemertes study.
The findings indicate that by 2010, the internet's capacity will not likely accommodate user demand. As a result, users could increasingly encounter internet 'brownouts' or interruptions to the applications they've become accustomed to using on the internet.
For example, it may take more than one attempt to confirm an online purchase or it may take longer to download the latest video from YouTube.
Overall, Nemertes says, the impact of this inadequate infrastructure will be primarily to slow down the pace of innovation. The next Amazon, Google or YouTube might not arise – not from a lack of user demand, but because of insufficient infrastructure preventing applications and companies from emerging.
Johna Till Johnson, president and senior founding partner of Nemertes Research, said: "The internet is inherently self-protecting – you can't push more traffic onto the net than it can handle.
"This means that studies which focus just on growth rates of existing traffic on the internet miss the issue of how much more traffic could be appearing on the net – based on the measured demand by business and consumer users – if internet capacity were sufficient to accommodate it."
The internet consists of a series of privately built and owned interconnected networks. Like the physical transportation system, which includes freeways as well as country roads, the internet consists of high-speed connections (fibre and underground cable) and lower-speed links (copper and coaxial connections), with traffic handled by switching equipment.
As with the physical transportation system, an internet user's experience is defined by both the capacity of the high-speed connections (the 'core') and the lower-speed links.
If the freeway is empty, but local roads are congested, users will spend most of their time stuck in traffic at the edges – something the study predicts will occur with increasing frequency starting in 2010.
By John Kennedy