Study: Internet Traffic Capacity Not Under Excessive Pressure

Published October 10, 2008

A new report casts doubt on predictions of runaway Internet traffic levels that will overburden the infrastructure capacity in coming years.

Dr. Andrew Odlyzko, a professor of mathematics and director of the Interdisciplinary Digital Technology Center at the University of Minnesota, has conducted research on Internet traffic worldwide.

His findings, made public in late July on the Minnesota Internet Traffic Studies (MINTS) Web site and in press interviews, show computing, storage, and transmission rates are experiencing steady growth at 50 to 60 percent per year.

Odlyzko’s data were compiled by looking at reliable Web sites from universities and exchanges around the world during a study period beginning in 2002. He wrote, “there is not a single sign of an unmanageable flood of traffic” in the Web sites studied.

Mike Jude, a senior analyst with Nemertes Research in Mokena, Illinois, takes issue with some of Odlyzko’s findings. Jude said, “With respect to the Internet’s ability to carry increasing traffic loads, we feel there is some reason to be concerned.”

Jude’s research on Internet capacity limits has found “there is a huge discrepancy [between] the bandwidth available to most subscribers who access the Internet and what they want to do with that bandwidth.”

Net Neutrality Implications

The debate over Internet capacity directly affects the net neutrality debate. If Odlyzko is correct, a major argument for “net neutrality”—that the government or Internet providers must regulate bandwidth to avoid an online “tragedy of the commons” scenario—is rendered obsolete.

Dr. Alan Wexelblat of Copyfight, a blog on intellectual property and politics, said, “If people perceive a situation of scarcity [of bandwidth], then they may be convinced to sacrifice other principles in order to alleviate the perceived shortage. … [Scarcity] is about perception, not actualities.”

Alleviating such a scarcity would not be easy, says Timothy Lee of the Cato Institute.

“The people who want ISPs [Internet service providers] to exert more influence over use of the Internet greatly underestimate the difficulty of doing so,” Lee warned. He views the Internet as being difficult to bring under “centralized control. … Any attempts by ISPs to limit their customers’ online activities are more likely to backfire than improve network efficiency.”

But Ryan Radia of the Competitive Enterprise Institute says consistently high Internet traffic may lead to usage limits by service providers.

“In the future, consumers and businesses that rely on bandwidth-intensive applications may encounter ISP pricing policies that meter bandwidth consumption,” Radia said. “Some ISPs have already written bandwidth rules into their terms of service agreements.”

Nevertheless, Lee sees government oversight as detrimental, arguing “market forces and the Internet’s basic architecture are sufficient to prevent ISPs from doing too much damage to network neutrality.”

Competition Best Regulator

Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) agrees, saying, “The first thing consumers and businesses should be concerned about is that there is a healthy marketplace in which there are lots of ISPs competing to offer them service.”

Eckersley and EFF want a marketplace where there are “reasonably good incentives to ensure that infrastructure meets demand down the road.”

Wexelblat believes neither businesses nor consumers should be concerned about the debate over possible limits to Internet traffic.

“Businesses that need more or better capacity will move to dedicated lines connected to key business elements” instead of putting up with poor service, Wexelblat said. Regarding the general public, he noted, “Consumers don’t really care about Internet traffic—what they care about is the quality of service of the providers they work with.”

Lee likewise sees no need for concern regarding the limits of Internet transmission. “The growth of network capacity is driven by supply and demand. Network owners will build as much capacity as customers are willing to pay for,” he said.

Nicholas Katers ([email protected]) writes from Franklin, Wisconsin.

For more information …

Minnesota Internet Traffic Studies Web site: