In recent months, the question of whether the Internet is sustainable in the face of increasing demand has been a focal point for discussions surrounding the upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which is being convened to modify the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR) treaty governing international telecommunications. In this telling, the Internet can’t withstand the dramatic upsurge in consumer demand for high-bandwidth Internet applications and services. Thus, the Internet is like the Titanic, heading for an iceberg that will only become apparent when it is too late to avoid.
Warnings about inevitable collisions are almost as old as the commercial Internet itself. In 1995, the traffic spike following the release of the first web browsers led Bob Metcalfe, the co-inventor of Ethernet, to write a column in which he bet that the Internet would suffer a ‘catastrophic collapse’ or he would eat his words. Soon after, at a conference he dropped his column into a blender and literally ate his words. Since then, others have made similar false predictions of doom – it seems that the only lesson they learned was not to offer to eat their words when they were proved wrong.
The Internet is much more nimble than the Titanic, continuously routing around challenges encountered en route. In the mid-1990s, Internet usage was largely in developed countries, access was via fixed dial-up, and early Web content was text-based. Since then, global Internet access and usage have grown exponentially. Dial-up has been replaced successively by broadband, and mobile broadband speeds now approach those of fixed broadband. More than 25% of international calls are now over the Internet, while the International Olympic Committee offered free live streaming of the recent London Olympic Games to users in 64 developing countries over YouTube.
Each spike in demand has been met with new investment and innovation. Capacity has been increased by many orders of magnitude through infrastructure upgrades and new investment. In addition, up to 98% of Internet traffic can now be stored in multiple caches and housed in Internet Exchange Points close to users, thereby reducing capacity demand. We see this same response repeating itself continuously as new infrastructure is built in developing countries, to deliver new content and services to users.
The Internet Society has just released a report written by Analysys Mason, entitled “How the Internet continues to sustain growth and innovation,” that provides data and analysis of the continual investment and innovation that have sustained the Internet through growth in developed and, more recently, developing countries.
We recognize that developing countries have legitimate concerns about the digital divide. In particular, there are still roadblocks to the expansion of mobile Internet access, especially in sparsely populated areas with low income users. These challenges require hard policy and regulatory decisions – introducing competition, supporting regulatory independence and transparency, for example – but also finding local solutions that can be tailored to the unique situation of a country or region. However, there is no indication that the Internet and its growth are unsustainable in developing regions. These real challenges should be addressed as developmental challenges and include the donor community. They should not be tackled through any one-sized global regulatory intervention that would change the very nature of the Internet.
The Internet is not the Titanic, and no iceberg is lurking in the distant fog. However, the WCIT is proving to be a Siren call for some, which may lead the Internet to run aground against the rocky shoals of regulation.