Friday, August 01, 2008

It's Getting Crowded on the Info Super Highway

The Internet Super Highway is becoming more like I-75 at rush hour than the Autobahn on a clear sunny day. As more and more of us graduate from using the Internet for simple email exchange and occasional Google® searches to downloading music, TV programs, and even full length movies in high definition, the Internet connections serving our neighborhood as well as the more robust Internet backbone itself are showing signs of congestion.

Email files consume very little “space” on the Internet as the number of bits and bytes being sent or received is miniscule. More important is that email messages do not need to be sent all at once. Even though you may think that all your precious words are sent in one email “envelope,” in reality even the shortest email message is broken up into tiny packets. Each packet travels separately and is reconnected with all the others once they all reach the final destination. Since this all happens at the speed of light you most likely haven’t noticed nor should you care that you email is being dissected.

On the other hand, music or video require very large files. A file containing one minute of good quality video is equivalent to a file containing hundreds or even thousands of emails. If you want to watch these videos on line in real time rather than downloading them and watching at another time, the Internet circuits are taxed even more.

This phenomenon is not lost on the major providers of Internet services, or ISPs as they are called. Comcast and Time Warner have been experimenting with several options. One idea is to charge each user based on their actual use. Currently most of us pay a set monthly charge based on the speed of the connection. We pay the same no matter if we send ten emails a month or if we are on line 24/7 watching videos and downloading music.

Much more controversial is the practice of some ISPs to actually block some online services that use a great deal of bandwidth. Recently Kevin Martin, FCC Chairman, warned Comcast to cease its practice of limiting access to some Comcast Internet subscribers to BitTorrent®, a video sharing service that is a very dependent on free access to the Internet.

Many of the large ISPs and networking organizations have experienced tremendous growth and customer demand. It was recently reported by AT&T, one of the largest broadband services, that traffic on the AT&T network has doubled over the past two years and is on a trajectory of doubling again within less than two years.

In the future your access to the Internet may well be metered like other “utilities.” Those who use more of the bandwidth, especially in peak hours will be charged more than the occasional email user. With more and more of use relying on the Internet for bill paying, banking and shopping, the Internet may become more of a toll road than a freeway.

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