Page last updated at 08:08 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 09:08 UK

Does online video threaten the net?

Flood sign under water, PA
Some predict the flood of video traffic will overwhelm the net

There is no doubt that video is big on the net. But is it getting too big?

Ask AT&T and it will answer - yes.

Speaking in London in late April, Jim Cicconi, AT&T's vice president of legal affairs, said the burgeoning amount of video would consume all the net's bandwidth in two years.

At the moment, said Mr Cicconi, video makes up 30% of net traffic now and in two years will hit 80%. Add in the move to high definition video which is seven to 10 times more bandwidth hungry, he said, and you get a recipe for failure.

Mr Cicconi is not alone in making startling predictions about an imminent rise in the amount of data whizzing across the internet.

Big pipes

In the US two key reports have brought to light the potential problem of the "exaflood". This is the time when the amount of data passing across the net exceeds an exabyte.

An exabyte is an unimaginably huge amount of data. It is estimated that in five exabytes you could list all the words ever spoken by human beings.

In its report, The Exabyte Era, network hardware maker Cisco predicted that by 2011 more than 12 exabytes of data will be crossing the net every month.

At that time 30% of the traffic will be video and a further 43% will be generated by people swapping video and other files via peer-to-peer networks.

Predictions for net traffic growth, BBC

But Cisco said this was no reason to panic.

The first line of the report's summary reads: "The internet is not collapsing under the weight of streaming video."

Professor Andrew Odlyzko, one of the few academics who studies net traffic growth, said predictions about the collapse of the net have been made with alarming regularity.

"It's an idea that crops up very frequently," he said, "but I do not think we need to be worried."

Professor Odlyzko's studies lead him to believe that net traffic will increase at a rate of between 50% and 60% over the next few years - a prediction matched by Cisco's exabyte report.

"It's rapid but it's manageable," he said, and within the range covered by the spending backbone net firms were planning to upgrade their infrastructure.

In the US, said Professor Odlyzko, the debate about traffic is being made more urgent as it goes alongside chatter about net neutrality - the idea that all data should be treated equally.

Instead many US net firms would prefer to stratify traffic and charge customers more to ensure that some of it gets through.

Video show

In the UK the debate about rising traffic on the net has been thrown into stark relief by the success of the BBC's iPlayer catch-up video service.

In the three months since its formal launch on Christmas Day 2007 users have watched more than 42 million programmes via the service.

Woman holding head in hands, Eyewire
Booming data growth may mean slower web browsing times

UK net service firm Plus Net published figures which showed it had seen 66% growth in the volume of streaming traffic on its network since 1 December 2007. This translated to an increase in the cost of handling that traffic from 17,233 to 51,700 per month.

Neil Armstrong, product director for Plusnet, said this was nothing to worry about.

"This is not a surprise to any of the ISPs," he said. "We have all been talking about and looking forward to video over the internet for years."

Performance rankings of UK ISPs by Epitiro suggests that the rise in video has had little or no effect on responsiveness. There are no signs of collapsing performance in the UK.

Plusnet sells net access in a variety of packages each one of which has a specific monthly data cap. Customers pay 75p per gigabyte if they exceed their monthly allowance.

"Probably one-third of our customers top up their usage allowance every month," said Mr Armstrong.

Cash call

For Tim Johnson, managing director of ISP analysts Point Topic, the complaints from ISPs about their rising costs has one cause.

"Their business model does not work anymore," he said.

"It's absolutely classic, and not just in telecoms, if your cost structure gets out of line with your charging structure then you are in trouble," he said.

He said too many net service firms had attracted customers by dangling offers of "unlimited" bandwidth which were made in the vain hope that few customers would suck up lots of data.

"If your customer is not using it very much once you have installed it, the cost of running it can be minimal," he said. "Streaming the iPlayer or any kind of video is at least an order of magnitude increase."

HAVE YOUR SAY
Online video isn't so much of a problem for countries that have invested properly in their internet services.
Billy, Leeds

Rampant competition in the UK broadband market, partly thanks to new entrants such as Vodafone and Carphone Warehouse, has forced prices lower.

This means, said Mr Johnson, few ISPs have ready cash for upgrading their networks or buying capacity to keep up with the demands of their customers.

For Martin Geddes of telecom analysts STL Partners the problem is being exacerbated by the UK's regulatory regime which sees many firms rent their net access from BT Wholesale.

With constant pressure on prices those net firms who do not have their own network, such as cable firm Virgin and Sky, may struggle, he said.

But the BBC might face difficult questions from ISPs in the near future, he said.

"The BBC is an interesting and difficult case," he said. "In most of its other activities the licence fee pays for distribution."

"The only exception is the iPlayer," he said. "That breaks the model."

Something was going to have to change, he said.

"It's a question of who pays for it and how you deliver it."




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