Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Internet is collapsing: again

It’s been a while since we’ve had a really good “the Internet will collapse scare”. Ever since Bob Metcalfe – Ethernet co-inventor, 3Com founder and pundit – suggested in 1996 that the Internet would collapse that year, it’s been touted as a possibility. Of course the Internet didn’t collapse and Metcalfe went on to eat his InfoWorld column that predicted it in front of an audience at that year’s World Wide Web conference.

It didn’t stop him, and others, from making follow-up predictions, however. The issue came up again in 2004 at a conference to discuss “Preventing the Internet Meltdown”, where organiser Lauren Weinstein noted that a “continuing and rapidly escalating series of alarming events suggest that immediate cooperative, specific planning is necessary if we are to have any chance of avoiding the meltdown.”

It seems we avoided that meltdown too, but now the alarm bells have been set off again, this time people warning that the surge in video use through sites such as YouTube is going to overwhelm the Internet. The most recent “collapse” warning came via a report from Nemertes Research and warns that in as little as two years we “potentially face Internet gridlock that could wreak havoc on Internet services.”

The Nemertes report is called “The Internet Singularity, Delayed: Why Limits in Internet Capacity Will Stifle Innovation on the Web,” and warns that consumer and corporate Internet usage could outstrip network capacity worldwide in a little more than two years. And it also advises that the financial investment required to “bridge the gap” between demand and capacity globally is around $137 billion, primarily in broadband access.

The result of demand outstripping supply, according to Nemertes, is that 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,” the research firm said. “Overall, 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.”

All pretty scary stuff, but then again these type of reports seem to be written for their shock value. Perhaps even more scary is that the research was partly funded by a group going by the name of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), which a net neutrality coalition called “Save the Internet” has helpfully outed. According to Save the Internet, the IIA is a lobby group for the big telcos and funded by AT&T. Nemertes counter-claims that its research is “independent”, but needless to say the big telcos are going to latch on to it as a way influence the regulators and protect their patch.

Here’s what Save the Internet had to say: “These types of studies often boil down to pure posturing and polemic against Net Neutrality, bought and paid for by AT&T. When researchers stumble across inconvenient points, such as the current boom in infrastructure investment, they dismiss them in favour of doomsday scenarios and call for an end to the one rule that allows online users to innovate without permission.”

Another thing to keep in mind, and which others have picked up on, is that innovation tends to happen where there is scarce bandwidth -- developers have to innovate to make the best of what is available. So saying that the next Google might not arise because of inadequate infrastructure is probably pushing things. Then again, it's just another in a long line of (false) warnings that the Internet is in danger of collapsing. -- Geoff Long

1 comment:

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