Thursday, August 21, 2008

BPN 1196 High speeds, deceleration of internet traffic?

This week I noticed an article on the growth of Internet by on Z24, a Dutch business site. The article contained a portrait. I immediately recognised Andrew Odlyzko, now a professor at the University of Minnesota, from the picture. I visited him in 1999, when he was still working at ATT Bell Labs, while I was on a consultancy assignment about scientific electronic publishing. Andrew is a prolific author on the wired world (as his homepage shows). Almost all his articles are available online, even in a pre-print form (!). He writies about electronic publishing, but also on electronic money. And he is not using the commonplace argumentsin fact he can be rather contrary to common opinion as he showed with his article Content is not king in 2001. He goes deeper and takes arguments for example from internet traffic.

This time he was back on the subject of the growth of internet. Of course we have heard the stories of internet being choked with all the traffic. In 1999 he already wrote that this was a fallacy: The thesis of Internet time rests largely on a misreading of transient phenomena. One often-recited factoid, for example, has it that Internet traffic has been doubling every three months, which corresponds to an astronomically high annual growth rate of about 1,500 percent. In truth, however, Net traffic grew at that torrid pace for one brief period during 1995-96. Since then, annual growth in traffic has been in the neighborhood of 100 percent—still an impressive statistic, but not nearly as earth-shattering as the myth would have us believe.

I looked up his list of articles and found the most recent article on this subject: Threats to the Internet: Too much or too little growth. Looking at his arguments, they did not basically change much from his 1998 pre-print Data networks are lightly utilized, and will stay that way, which was published in 2003. The abstract reads: The popular press often extolls packet networks as much more efficient than switched voice networks in utilizing transmission lines. This impression is reinforced by the delays experienced on the Internet and the famous graphs for traffic patterns through the major exchange points on the Internet, which suggest that networks are running at full capacity. This paper shows the popular impression is incorrect; data networks are very lightly utilized compared to the telephone network. Even the backbones of the Internet are run at lower fractions (10% to 15%) of their capacity than the switched voice network (which operates at over 30% of capacity on average). Private line networks are utilized far less intensively (at 3% to 5%). Further, this situation is likely to persist. The low utilization of data networks compared to voice phone networks is not a symptom of waste. It comes from different patterns of use, lumpy capacity of transmission facilities, and the high growth rate of the industry.

But this time the 2008 article has a twist. His tentative conclusion is that the industry should worry more about inducing higher growth rates of Internet traffic, and less about imposing limits. That there are grounds for concern is shown by the example of Hong Kong (see MINTS for links to detailed government-collected statistics). Traffic levels there are about 6x those of the U.S., and the speeds of residential connections make those in the U.S. seem laughable. Yet traffic growth in Hong Kong has decelerated, and at the end of 2007 was down to almost 20 per cent per year. Such rates, far below rates of progress in transmission technology, should strike fear in the hearts and minds of telecom professionals.

So Hong Kong with fast connections and a very high traffic rate, is showing a deceleration of internet growth for 2007 almost 20 per cent. That is interesting. I am wondering what is going to happen in The Netherlands. Presently the glass fiber projects pop up like mushrooms all over the place. By 2010 many urban home will have a fast connection ranging from 60Mb to 100Mb. Will the internet traffic go down as well like in Hong Kong?

Blog Posting Number 1196


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