Researcher: encourage more, not less Internet traffic

Companies like Comcast and Bell Canada talk about drowning in data even as dire reports about "exafloods" warn of the consequences of continued Internet traffic growth. But new research out of the University of Minnesota finds that Internet traffic growth rates are stagnant or falling, even as transmission prices plummet. Perhaps now is the time for carriers to think about stimulating demand rather than throttling it. HangZhou Night Net

Andrew Odlyzko

That's one conclusion drawn from the newest numbers in the Minnesota Internet Traffic Studies (MINTS) project. Andrew Odlyzko, who oversees the project, is one of the recognized experts in Internet data metrics. His conclusion, after looking over the new 2007-2008 data set, is that "there is not a single sign of an unmanageable flood of traffic. If anything, a slowdown is visible more than a speedup. This suggests that the industry might benefit from shifting its emphasis towards methods of stimulating traffic growth."

In fact, the 2007-2008 growth numbers are some of the weakest in recent memory. While growth remains healthy at around 50 percent a year, growth rates are dropping in many places. Overall, the most recent growth rate is the lost since 2003 (a chart showing median growth rates is below).

Data source: MINTS

50 percent a year is still tremendous growth in nearly any industry, but it's the sort of growth that router makers and fiber optic equipment companies can largely cope with. In fact, you can tell they can cope simply by looking at the cost of transit; even as demand has surged, Odlyzko notes that transmission costs continue to drop by nearly a third a year.

While cheaper bandwidth sounds like good news, it's not so great for last-mile carriers. Odlyzko explained why in an article earlier this year.

"Now, annual traffic growth rates of 50 percent, when combined with cost declines on the order of 33 percent, result in no net increase in costs to provide the increased transmission capacity," he wrote for Internet Evolution. "In a competitive environment, that means no increase in revenues, which is hardly a cheering prospect for the industry. If traffic growth could be pushed back towards 100 percent, where it used to be for many years, we would have pressure for increased revenues, and also for new technologies."

His solution is to stimulate demand, rather than throttle it, in order to avoid a tremendous glut of dirt-cheap capacity on the worldwide market. This isn't the sort of idea that will be embraced by most last-mile ISPs in the US (except, perhaps, by Verizon), since many of these links (well, with cable modem service, at least) actually do experience local congestion, largely due to atrocious, shared upload bandwidth. Cable companies are rolling out DOCSIS 3.0, which promises tenfold speed increases in both directions, but the tech won't be fully in place for years.

Any day now, when everyone has fiber to the premises (*cough*), bandwidth caps and throttling issues should hopefully become relics of the distant past. The core has plenty of bandwidth and is growing along with traffic, so once that last-mile gets expanded into an eight-lane superhighway, everything should be copacetic. Until then, we'll continue to see enlightened policies like 5GB monthly caps.