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Bandwidth and Over-the-Top Video

Three things are clear about video, in this last month of 2010.

One, it’s morphing from a service into an app. Two, size-wise, it’s gigantic when compared with regular Web surfing and phone calls. Three, the “over-the-top” iteration of it represents 15% to 50% of traffic running over cable’s broadband plant - up from about 10% two or three years ago.

The people whose work it is to manage Internet bandwidth used to freak out about peer-to-peer video. P2P isn’t exactly chump change right now, but streaming video is definitely the bigger ogre.

Over-the-top, under-the-bottom, call it what you will: Practically and tactically, it’s a tsunami of bits, clogging a network that someone else built. It rides “over the top” of the broadband infrastructure built not just by cable, but by wireless, telco or anything that moves Internet bits.

From that network-centric point of view, it’s fairly easy to agree on one thing: “Holiday punch” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re the guy handing in a budget request for doubled or quadrupled capital spending next year, just to make sure your CMTS ports don’t buckle under the extra load of overthe- top video traffic. (Oh, and don’t forget the part about the no return on investment!)

Here’s an analogy: Two options exist when a highway gets consistently clogged with cars: add a lane or car pool.

In cable, “add a lane” becomes “plunk another DOCSIS channel into the bond,” which presupposes DOCSIS 3.0.

The car pool equivalent is to lessen the number of cars that share the road. In tech terms, that means splitting the node - lighting up another strand of fiber so the available bandwidth is used by half the number of homes.

Here’s why the analogy breaks down, though, when it comes to over-the-top video: adaptive streaming. It makes over-the-top video behave like a gas, filling all available space. Doesn’t matter how much room there is; it’ll find a way through.

More bandwidth? Great! Higher-resolution stream. Less bandwidth? No problem. Lower-resolution stream. And so on, in real time.

Again: Streaming video, as a percentage of over-the-top Internet traffic, grew from 10% to as high as 50%, in three years. And Netflix streaming is just getting started.

This is why the whole hullaballoo between Level 3 and Comcast, and related to the surge in streaming Netflix traffic, is so necessary. Ugly, but necessary. It’s a question of who pays what freight.

Sure, I love free shipping. Who doesn’t? The merchants I buy stuff from often offer it as a perk. But I don’t expect it 100% of the time.

Man up, Netflix.