Sunday, May 14, 2006

High-Resolution Images Could Choke Internet  

Perhaps you've seen this article, entitled High-Definition Video Could Choke Internet, already:

Every day, it seems, a new service pops up offering to send you video over the Internet. "Desperate Housewives," Stephen Colbert heckling the president, clips of bad dancers at wedding parties: It's all there.

You may be up for it, but is the Internet?

The answer from the major Internet service providers, the telephone and cable companies, is "no." Small clips are fine, but TV-quality and especially high-definition programming could make the Internet choke.

Man. That just sounds really familiar to me for some reason. I've been online for more than a decade now, and this has been bugging me all day. So I started searching through my old floppy disks for news articles that I'd stashed away back in my university days. It turns out this argument isn't new at all! Check it out (sorry, no link to the original -- all I know about the origin is that I saved it off Usenet as jpegbad.txt):

High-Resolution Images Could Choke Internet
By SVEN PETERSON, Microcomputer Technology Writer
Sunday Mar 24, 1996

NEW YORK - Every day, it seems, a new service pops up offering to send you images or software over a new service called the World Wide Web, or WWW. Astronomy pictures of the day,, the Internet Movie Database, DOOM wads, Info-Mac archives: It's all there.

You may be ready for it, but is the Internet?

The answer, from major Internet service providers such as Prodigy, Compuserve, and eWorld, is "no." Small pictures are fine, but GIF animations, full-color JPEGs, and especially high-resolution images could make the Internet choke.

Most home Internet use is in brief bursts: an e-mail here, a gopher session there, followed by some Telnet activity. If people start browsing the World Wide Web like they watch TV -- for hours at a time -- that puts a strain on the Internet that it wasn't designed for, ISPs say, and beefing up the Internet's capacity to prevent that will be expensive.

To offset that cost, ISPs want to start charging content providers to ensure delivery of large JPEG files, for example.

Internet activists and consumer groups are vehemently against those plans, saying they amount to deliberately fouling the Internet's level playing field, one of the things that has encouraged communication and collaboration and may, in the future, provide a much-needed boost to the US economy. They want legislation to guarantee a "neutral" Internet, but prospects appear slim.

At the heart of the debate is a key question: How much would it really cost the Internet carriers to provide a couple of megabytes of JPEG-laden WWW pages over their networks every day?

The carriers are not telling, but there are ways to get close to an answer.

One data point: As a rough estimate, an always-on, 1000 kilobit-per-second connection to the Internet backbone in downtown Cleveland, purchased wholesale, costs an ISP $100 to $200 a month, according to the research firm GeoTelegraphy Inc. An ISP's business is carrying data from that connection to the customer.

One thousand kilobits per second is obviously a lot of bandwidth, so ISPs have to spread that bandwidth out over their subscribers. That connection can serve about 30 users who are using every bit of their 28.8 kilobit-per-second dialup connection. But analysts estimate that ISPs sell around 30 times more bandwidth to their end users than they can connect simultaneously to the Internet, meaning that these thousand kilobits are often shared by roughly 900 users.

In a way, dial-up internet service is like an old-fashioned telephone service, where there are always more lines leading from homes to the local switching station than there are going from the station out of the neighborhood. If everyone picks up the phone at once, there won't be enough outgoing lines for every call to go through. But the system works because that rarely happens.

Oversubscription doesn't present a problem as long as people are only using the Internet for e-mail, telnet, and the occasional FTP download. But if everyone in a neighborhood is trying to "surf" the WWW at the same time, it's just not going to work.

"The simple truth is that today's networks simply don't have the capacity to deliver all that customers expect," says Timothy Taker, Prodigy's top lobbyist.

The solution, of course, is to make the pipes connecting to the Internet fatter. To illustrate what that would mean, Compuserve's chief architect, Franz Kafka, uses the assumption that the cost of providing a month's worth of data to the average user, about 2 megabytes, costs the company $1. That's a fairly small amount compared to the $25 to $47 a month Compuserve charges for dial-up, but then the company has to pay for sales, support, maintenance and a host of other costs.

If that same user were to start downloading twenty print-quality high-resolution JPEGs per month, Compuserve's data cost, not including the cost of maintaining the dial-up line, would go up to $4.50 a month. Higher, but perhaps not high enough to break their business model.

But if the customer starts browsing the WWW like the average household watches broadcast TV, 8 hours a day, Compuserve's cost would go up to $112 a month, enough to inspire nightmares in the corporate accounting department according to Kafka.

"We don't expect to get to the point where we're charging anyone those kinds of prices for Internet service, but it does reflect the kind of impact that high-resolution JPEGs and GIFs could have on the network and business models for the Internet," Kafka said.

To deal with that, Kafka says Compuserve might put caps on the amount of data that a residential user gets for free, and charge extra if the user goes over. Other options include charging content providers extra for guaranteed delivery of JPEG images and GIF animations, which has raised the hackles of Internet content providers and activists.

However, Kafka's estimates for these costs aren't really Compuserve's. Like other ISPs, they don't disclose their actual costs. Instead, Kafka's base figure of $1 for 2 megabytes of data per month is based on an estimate by Dave Tricklestein, sysop of the Dial-Up Prime BBS, and Tricklestein thinks Kafka has it wrong.

"Traffic just isn't growing that fast," Tricklestein said. "It will grow and it will even accelerate, but not fast enough to turn into dollar amounts that really matter." The new WWW service is still just a small fraction of the total amount of internet traffic out there, and that's unlikely to change overnight, in Tricklestein's opinion.

In fact, he said, it will probably be at least two more years before the WWW takes off in a big way. Prices of network equipment like switches and routers have been falling, and that trend is likely to continue.

Tricklestein believes the danger of letting the carriers charge extra for guaranteed delivery is that they'll put the spending for upgrades into creating that extra "toll lane," and won't reduce oversubscription in the rest of the network even though it would be cheap to do so.

Both Compuserve and eWorld have said they won't degrade or block anyone's Internet traffic. But it's impossible to tell what goes on inside their networks.

So what's the message? Stay tuned, and watch your modem connection speeds.

Funny. Whatever happened to Compuserve and that short-lived dial-up business model where you got charged extra for overages? Oh yeah, consumers ran away from it in droves in favor of unlimited-download services so that they could browse the Web without restriction.


  • Anonymous said...

    Presumably, Sven Peterson and Peter Svensson are one and the same writer. If not, it should be pointed out to Forbes that Peter is plagiarising Sven.

  • Drew Thaler said...

    Or perhaps one of them is a parody of the other? Hmm. But which is which!?

  • Drew Thaler said...

    Now that the New York Times is opening up its archives, here's a humorous look back at 1993.

    BUSINESS TECHNOLOGY; A Free and Simple Computer Link

    "Since its introduction earlier this year, the program, called Mosaic, has grown so popular that its use is causing data traffic jams on the Internet. That worries some computer scientists."

    I don't want to say "I told you so", but ... well...

  • Drew Thaler said...

    And wait, there's more from the NYT! Also written in 1993:

    Jams Already on Data Highway

    "The problem, computer and telecommunications experts say, is that the computer network called the Internet, once a cozy community of a few thousand computer scientists, engineers and programmers who quietly and freely shared their on-line data, has suddenly been besieged by millions of newcomers. Anyone with a personal computer and a modem can easily and cheaply gain access to the Internet, a global web of thousands of computer networks."

    "The Internet has been widely hailed as a here-and-now precursor to the interactive 500-channel cable television systems of the future. But the information highway metaphor is proving all too literal, as traffic jams become increasingly common. Although service providers charge usage fees for the telephone lines that connect individuals to the Internet, most of the on-line information is free for the taking. As a result, highly prized digital information that has been freely available to any and all -- like free software, National Weather Service satellite photos and on-line searches of the Library of Congress catalogue -- is now sometimes inaccessible to almost everyone as a clamoring horde overwhelms the computer data bases."