Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Increasing Internet Capacity

| December 26, 2007

ARE YOU one of the over 63 million people who watched the "Evolution of Dance" on YouTube? Did you download the latest version of "The Colbert Report" on your iPod? Instead maybe you were stuck somewhere in Asia on business and you watched the final game of the World Series online? Or you called up your children in Europe on Skype and sat staring, transfixed, as your baby grandson tried to eat the keyboard?

If you did any of those things, you are part of the new world of the Internet, a world where video is rapidly becoming the most popular thing we do online. But video takes up a lot of space, a lot more than text, and the increased use of video means that the Internet is fast filling up. The result is that if we don't invest soon, we could be seeing, in the near future, the Internet equivalent of an early evening traffic jam on Interstate 93. It could take forever for your photos or video to download or for your e-mail to arrive.

The backbone of the Internet will need to grow. For instance, more fiber optic cable will need to be laid, and that's not cheap. In the past the big telephone companies have laid necessary cable, and they are the ones best situated to do it again.

The problem we face stems from the fact that text — as in e-mail and even spam — doesn't use very much bandwidth. But then came music, voice, and video. More music is now sold over iTunes than on CDs. More and more people are abandoning their phones and cellphones to talk over the Internet. And more and more people are watching television online. The problem is that video consumes enormous amounts of bandwidth. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the 100 million video streams watched each day on YouTube consume as much bandwidth as the entire Internet did in the year 2000!

In any other business model, growing to meet this demand would be easy. Rapid growth usually provides more money for investment. But the Internet business got started as a flat-fee business — we all pay one monthly fee regardless of how much bandwidth we use. The grandmother who stares dreamily at her grandchild on Skype pays the same monthly rate as the grandmother who sends an e-mail wanting to know if he's learned to say "dada" yet.

Over at MIT, the Communications Futures Program argues that we are fast coming to a turning point — either the flat-rate pricing models have to end so that there can be more investment, or the Internet will slow to a crawl. Pricing changes will be unpopular to consumers accustomed to what they call "all you can eat" prices. Another available option is to charge the generators of video such as YouTube higher fees for access and continue with the flat rate pricing models.

In the past, when Internet service providers have tried to raise rates, someone has come along and offered the same service for less. But this history may be coming to an end, and that's why they are urging the companies to change their pricing structure.

It will be difficult to get phone companies to charge the prices necessary to pay for new investments in Internet infrastructure. No one can make them do so, for the Internet is not regulated. But industry will need to take into account the public interest.

We need to start thinking about a variety of options. Perhaps we should look at different pricing structures for different online activities or require the use of "smart" networks that give lower priority to entertainment-related data than to packets of data in areas like telemedicine. Many Internet activities are in the broad public interest. We need to make sure those aren't hampered because, somewhere in the world, teenagers are playing online games or grandmas are staring at their children's babies.

Elaine C. Kamarck is a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

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For Academic Citation: Kamarck, Elaine.“Increasing Internet Capacity.” The Boston Globe, December 26, 2007.