Traffic Jam: Is the Internet Sky Falling?

An article by  for GigaOM cites a fascinating statistic from the Sandvine Global Internet Phenomena Report. According to last fall’s version of the report, half of all our Internet use is related to video. Netflix and YouTube alone account for more than 37% of the total traffic. And according to the recently released spring update to the report, when you include audio streaming the total “entertainment traffic” accounts for 64.5% of all Internet downstream traffic on fixed networks in North America, and 51.6% on all mobile networks in North America. Sandvine predicts that entertainment traffic will consume more than 60% of all mobile downstream traffic by 2014.

Should we be worried? Are we going to start getting the data equivalent of a busy signal when we try to send or receive email on our phones and tablets? Or even on our connected computers and other devices?

Fortunately, there are a number of factors that suggest that we’re not headed for a crisis. New technologies keep coming along that increase the amount of data that can be carried by the fiber optic backbones of our nation’s Internet system, with the result that capacity increases anywhere from two to 100 times. All that has to be changed are the encoding devices at the end of the existing cables; the labor-intensive and costly laying of new cable is often avoided.

Also the data itself is becoming more intelligent. For example, some video codecs support “adaptive bitrate streaming” which adjusts the quality of the image based on the bandwidth available in the connection.

All the same, there is the possibility of unintended consequences that could arise from broadband shortages. Already, we see the imposition of data caps on mobile device plans, even though it is a small minority of users who consume the largest share of bandwidth. And we’ve also see the rise of favored treatment for some data over others, which threatens the concept of “net neutrality” that most people appear to favor.

It would appear that the correct reaction at this point is to remain optimistic but vigilant. Watch out for changes from your mobile data or broadband service providers that could cost you more for your Internet service, or limit or slow your access to certain types of content.