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The State of the

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2007-04-04 Print this article Print

Reports of the Internet's death are greatly exaggerated. But the growth of video and broadband access will require new investment, technology and thinking to keep it healthy.


The State of the Internet

The Internet is a network of networks; at some point, generalizations about it break down. "We connect 260 different networks, some managed well and some managed less well," says Steenman. "Sometimes problems will be attributed to 'the Internet' that belong to a specific network." Connecting all these networks is an infrastructure of fiber-optic cables and major hubs such as AMS-IX; it is this core that Steenman and others regard as healthy into the near future.

Part of that confidence is bred by the design of the net itself, which was famously conceived to survive disaster by routing packets of information by the best available path; thus, overburdening a particular piece of the net doesn't clog the whole thing. This resiliency was demonstrated in the aftermath of the December 2006 earthquake in Taiwan, which knocked out of commission all but one of the eight submarine cables carrying telecom traffic from around the world to southern Asia. Internet service suffered, but did not go down completely, as traffic was rerouted across landlines and satellites.

Earthquakes aside, there is a lot of fiber-optic cable out there. The billions of dollars spent on laying so much of it helped pop the Internet bubble, and a lot of it stayed dark for years. But it's still there, and its carrying capacity won't be used up for quite a while. Part of that is due to improved technology: With huge increases in the ability to utilize the spectrum in recent years, some fiber is being used at only 1/100th of its potential capacity, according to TeleGeography's Schoonover. Given the ability to upgrade the performance of older fiber, in large part by updating the boxes—the broad range of hubs, routers, repeaters, lasers, multiplexers and so on—at either end of it, says Schoonover, "it's a stretch to say that even 5 percent of the potential capacity of long-haul fiber is being used."

That's not to say all this juiced-up fiber capacity is readily available. But the technology to enable it to handle projected near-to-mid-term growth is ready to deploy. Updating the hardware to utilize more of the spectrum and move to a new Ethernet standard won't be cheap. "The economics have to work out to replace opto-electronics to add capacity," says Cerf. But Steenman says AMS-IX, a not-for-profit, has the pricing power with its customers to support the investment it needs. In the longer term, the economics of upgrading are the subject of debate.

Says Schoonover: "If the demand is there, companies are going to be able to recover the upgrade costs in the sale of their capacity. We're talking about lighting new fiber, or adding wavelengths to existing lit fiber. Both are relatively cheap compared to the construction costs of putting in new fiber. [The burden of upgrading] is not the end of the world."

At the access layer, Earthlink's Collins says corporate IT, which tends to purchase its own direct connections to the Internet, should not see problems. For consumers, faster access for the last mile is on the way, with improved DSL and other broadband-service performance, and better image compression. Access providers for smaller and less-thickly-populated residential markets could feel a squeeze, he says, as they may lack the user density to make upgrades pay off in a reasonable period. Even there, given the number of popular applications available to consumers, says Collins, "migration from broadband to super-broadband will not take as long as the move from dial-up to broadband. We don't really control that last mile, the consumer does; where the consumer demands it, the market will deliver it. There's a challenge, but we're not standing around wringing our hands."

If streaming video becomes hugely popular, the potential for delays is real, says Cerf. But he's not convinced that consumers are in a hurry to start watching lots of streaming video in real time on their PCs and other devices, rather than downloading video to watch at their leisure. "I would point out that watching streaming video over the Internet is much less satisfying than downloading video and playing it back, as an iPod is for audio," he says. "Downloading is easier on the network. You don't have to assure every packet arrives precisely in order, and on time."

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.
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