The volumes of data being distributed around the globe could spell trouble for internet service providers.
From Netflix and Spotify to YouTube and Vine, streaming has become the default method of digital content delivery. In the early days of the internet, data was downloaded either directly from media providers or exchanged across peer-to-peer platforms. It was then converted into a self-contained file on a user’s hard drive, once the final bytes and footers had arrived. A file transfer that failed at 99% would often leave the recipient with nothing more than an unplayable media file and a strong sense of resentment.
The introduction of broadband and 4G has improved connection speeds to the point where a typical British householder can stream pretty much anything at whatever definition or lossless ratio they fancy. No longer is it necessary to wait for the next episode of Making a Murderer to fully download; providing the initial file portions are accessible, your TV or tablet can start playing it and fill in the gaps later. Sky TV customers with decent broadband speeds can begin watching a programme that’s only two per cent downloaded, and video content platforms like YouTube require even less of a head start.
Streaming taps into modern society’s insatiable demand for instant access and time-saving measures. Why compile an MP3 playlist and transfer it to your smartphone when Deezer and Rhapsody offer more than 30 million songs each, via immediate stream? The host companies benefit as well, in that they can monitor with precision the popularity of particular files; by contrast, British TV ratings are averaged based on the viewing habits of 5,100 pre-selected homes. Because a streamed file can only be watched once, creators and distributors retain greater control over it, whereas copying or file-sharing are far harder with streamed media.
Of course, there’s a price to pay for this voracious data consumption, quite apart from those monthly subscriptions and the providers’ server requirements. In tandem with the exponentially-increasing Internet of Things, there is speculation that streamed content may begin to overwhelm the internet. It was calculated last year that Netflix alone now accounts for more than a third of American internet bandwidth consumption. That meteoric growth isn’t even replacing alternative or existing web traffic, since most Netflix content would previously have been either watched on TV or accessed via an offline DVD.
A recent report by PwC christened the exponential growth in streaming a ‘videoquake’, and it’s interesting to consider what challenges the internet will face from ever-growing bandwidth demands by dozens of streaming media servers and millions of avaricious consumers. Cisco predict that 2016 will see global IP traffic surpass the one zettabyte threshold, which is equivalent to a trillion gigabytes of data. By 2019, they anticipate two zettabytes of data being transmitted each year, of which 62 per cent will be content delivery, compared to 39 per cent in 2014. Cisco calculate that just three years from now internet data traffic will be equivalent to 64 times the volume of the entire internet just a decade ago, with three IP-connected devices for every person on the planet.
Such volumes of data clearly pose challenges for the internet, but it’s unlikely to struggle unduly. It’s expected that global fixed-line broadband speeds will average 43Mbps in three years’ time, compared to just 20Mbps a couple of years ago. Since the largest global growth in IP traffic is occurring in Africa and the Middle East, data transfer will increasingly be evenly dispersed throughout each 24-hour cycle. Furthermore, greater demand for bandwidth in these continents should be absorbed as broadband infrastructures expand throughout Africa and Asia.
If more draconian measures are ever needed, the development of multicore broadband cables could keep the information superhighway running at full speed. One recent experiment reported a data transfer rate of 32 terabytes per second through a seven-core glass fibre cable – that’s enough to fully download a hundred DVD-quality films in one second. While this would require huge levels of investment by Governments and ISPs, it does provide reassurance that the internet shouldn’t ever slow down as a result of too much binge-watching or music streaming…