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What's Clogging Up the Pipes

Last week, we looked to the north at claims by an elected official in Canada that “additional usage billing,” as they call it up there, should be overruled because there’s no evidence of congestion on the Internet.

This week, we’ll go a little deeper into what’s clogging the network - because it’s not just Netflix bits causing that sustained, 45% (and higher) compound annual growth in broadband Internet usage.

First let’s hit the obvious: There are more subscribers, buying more devices that want to attach to the network. Look around your house. Bet you a dime there’s at least 10 items seeking an Internet connection (don’t forget digital picture frames, game players and all of your handheld gadgetry).

Then there’s the very nature of the “adaptive codec,” also known as “fragmented MPEG-4.” MPEG-4 is the latest chapter in video compression. It works by chunking a compressed video stream into several different sizes, then sending along the right size for how much bandwidth is available. Congested network? Send the smaller chunk. Lots of elbow room? Send the biggest one you can. For that reason, adaptive streaming behaves like a gas, filling all available space - or network pipe, in this case.

Here’s one that’s start to show up more: machine-to-machine computing. Tony Werner, chief technology officer of Comcast, pointed out during his keynote at the SCTE Canada Summit on March 8 that while population growth is less than 1% per year, machines are growing at 50% per year - many of them network-connected and talking.

What does that mean? Not a lot of bits, but lots of machines moving them: software updates, virus updates, distributed computing. Like the fun-to-say “Berkley BOINC” (pronounced “boink”), described as follows on its website: “Use the idle time on your computer to cure diseases, study global warming, discover pulsars, and do many other types of scientific research.” Early on, a predominant use was “SETI,” for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” All of your geekier friends had it. These days, my favorite is the Electric Sheep screen saver.

Then there’s pixels per person, which measures the amount of screen we look at as humans. Right now, and according to data from Cisco Systems’ ongoing VNI (Visual Networking Index) research, you view 1.4 million pixels; within three years, that nearly doubles - you’ll be looking at screens with an aggregate pixel count of 2.3 million.

Does broadband usage ever plateau? Doesn’t seem likely. That’s good news for all the stuff we do electronically; bad news for those who built, maintain and augment those broadband pipelines.


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