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Warning :  The End of the Internet As We Know (and Love) It?

Alarming Implications for Everyone

Is our internet usage to become metered (again), just like our electricity usage?

Part 1 of a two part article - see also part 2, 'The New Internet Charging Paradigm'.



The world as we know it today is increasingly built on a paradigm - unlimited fast free internet for both information service providers and information service consumers.

Invaluable services we have come to rely on would not be viable if they and we both had to pay for the internet data consumed by such services (this sounds paradoxical but remains true, nonetheless).

Is the 'free ride' we've all enjoyed with our internet access about to come to a crashing halt, and, if so, what will replace it?

The Evolution of Internet Access and Connection Speeds

At the start of the internet age (let's consider this to be some time in the early/middle 1990s), we connected via dialup modem, typically at speeds ranging from 14.4kbps to 33.6 kbps and we paid per hour of online time.

At the risk of stating the obvious, internet connection speeds have steadily increased, while internet connection charges have steadily decreased. One third factor - the amount of content available on the internet has also skyrocketed.

It is harder to quantify the costs of internet connections and the amount of data on the internet, but it is easy to compare connecting speeds.  The 14.4 kbps - 33.6 kbps have increased and are now typically 100 to 1000 times faster than they were 15 years ago.

The bottom line, today, is an apparently very happy one - we are spending more time on the internet than ever before, downloading more than ever before per hour of connect time, and paying less for the best cable, ethernet or DSL providers than ever before.

The Onset of Unlimited Internet Access

One of the watershed moments in the evolution of our access to the internet, and the cost of this access, was AOL's $19.95 a month fee for unlimited dialup internet connectivity, first launched in 1996.

If you're old enough to remember that far back, you probably remember the barrage of first free diskettes containing the AOL software, included in just about every computer magazine and all sorts of other media too, and subsequently CDs rather than diskettes.

This was a key breakthrough - unlimited internet for $20/month.  Back then, which was still prior even to the launch of 56kbps modems, no-one ever thought of limiting the amount of data one could download from the internet, because no-one either could or would download all that much.

In addition, ISPs would typically oversell their own incoming bandwidth ten-fold, so even if one were to be able to drive one's modem at an average of half its rated speed, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that would still only be a maximum of about 4GB of data a month.  Of course, not even the most addicted person had their modem on all day every day, and the average user would download vastly less than 1GB/month, and more like 100MB.  What was there to download, anyway?  There was no video back then.  Primarily, there were only fairly plain webpages and email.

AOL's one-time massive marketing presence created a new internet paradigm, which meant all subsequent internet connection contracts from all competing ISPs ended up similarly offering both unlimited connection time and unlimited data transferred.

With the advent of DSL and cable internet connections, the concept of charging for connect time became meaningless anyway, because such internet connections were always on, and always connected.  As for charging for data instead of connect time, almost no-one gave any thought to such an outré concept.

The Benefit of the Dot Bomb Crash

The next interesting twist was the dot com explosion becoming the dot bomb crash.  This actually benefitted us as internet users in a subtle way.

Companies that had invested millions and billions of dollars in laying new internet connections across the country went bankrupt, allowing their massive investments in internet infrastructure to be bought for pennies on the dollar.  For much of the 2000s, we enjoyed an internet infrastructure that was both under-utilized and also which had its costs of development written off through the accounting gyrations of the dot bomb.

Growing connection speeds encouraged the development of applications to make use of the faster connections and greater interactivity, and more powerful computer processors made applications such as realtime video compressing and decompressing possible.  Video streaming became commonplace, and the internet itself was becoming so omni-present, so fast, and so reliable, that it was becoming possible to plan one's life and business based on storing everything not on a local computer but 'in the cloud' somewhere in the internet.

In 2007, Youtube alone was responsible for more internet traffic than was on the entire internet back in 2000.  That statistic is all the more amazing when you realize Youtube was launched little more than one year earlier - in late 2005.

Internet traffic has been consistently growing by almost exactly 50% every year (here's a fascinating article which calculated the 50% growth rate way back in 1998, and which remained accurate even during the extraordinary growth of the 2000s and on to 2011), and nowadays Youtube serves almost three billion videos every day.

Youtube not only serves more and more videos every day, but each of these videos is taking up more and more bandwidth, due to Youtube supporting higher definition formats.  Five years before Youtube started, radio stations were struggling to stream low bit-rate audio that sounded horrible; today Youtube is streaming broadcast quality (and better) video.

Sometimes we complacently accept the amazing progress that is occuring without stopping to appreciate it.  This is definitely a case in point.

A Voracious New Consumer of Internet Capacity

There's a new technology that is at present transitioning from something lurking in the margins of the internet to becoming a mainstream part of the internet and its traffic demands - the streaming of movies, and not just in highly compressed small bandwidth format, but in 'HD' format high quality streams.  This is being driven initially by Netflix, and other companies are leaping onto the bandwagon at all, with Amazon rumored to be about to release a streaming service too.  These streaming services typically offer unlimited movie streaming, and at bandwidths of up to 6Mbps (in comparison, early internet radio streaming services operated at 32kbps - nearly 200 times slower).

So compare these two numbers.  Little more than ten years ago, the average person used something less than 1GB of internet data a month (and more commonly no more than a tenth that).  Today, streaming a single two hour movie can consume as much as 5GB of data - more in two hours than an average user formerly used in a month.

A growing 'perfect storm'

This growth rate is not consistent with the internet usage increasing by 50% every year.  Adding high quality video streaming represents a huge jump further up in internet usage.  And at the same time, most of the excess internet capacity that provided the basis of 'a free ride' during most of the 2000s is now reaching maximum utilization.  There's little or no remaining spare/surplus internet capacity, meaning that additional capacity will require new and costly investments in infrastructure.

The interesting thing is that with the extremely fast internet connections everyone has, there is now a much larger divergence between the data consumed by a 'light' user of the internet and a 'heavy' user.  A light user may use anything from 0.1 GB up to maybe 1 or 2 GB.  But a heavy user, with a 10Mbps or faster connection, could in theory download up to 3 TB - three terabytes, or 3,000 GB of data a month.

So whereas in the past there was a spread of one hundred-fold or so between light and heavy users, now there can be a spread of one thousand-fold or more.  A 'one size fits all' model is now much more open to abuse than it was when AOL first announced its unlimited plans, 15 years ago.

Add all this up and you get, to use a much overworked term, a perfect storm.  Can you guess what this leads to?

Please click on to the second part of this two part article.

This is the first part of a two part article - please clock on to part 2, 'The New Internet Charging Paradigm'.

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Originally published 11 Feb 2011, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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