Is it time to scrap the Internet and start over?
With millions of people watching shows and movies online, service providers may become so overwhelmed that the Internet may seem outmoded.
More and more, Americans are treating their PC as a second TV. Few are ready to place a couch in front of their monitors, but millions are plopping down in front of Internet services such as YouTube, Joost, and television network websites to watch online shows and movies.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Streaming video will surge from 7.3 percent of all US consumer Internet traffic in 2006 to almost 33 percent by 2012, according to the market research firm IDC of Framingham, Mass.
But remember, that's just a percentage. Along with video's increasing share, total Internet traffic is expected to double every two years, industry analysts say.
Some warn that this rush will overwhelm service providers if they don't prepare for it. And the forecast for an ever-rising flood of data has some asking, is the Internet outdated?
"That's one way to put it," says Larry Roberts, who, in 1969, managed the Pentagon's APRAnet, the precursor to the Internet. "Another is that it's insufficient for the new kinds and new scale of today's transfers."
While some disagree with Mr. Roberts's characterization, the connection speeds reaching American homes are certainly behind those enjoyed by Japan, South Korea, and Sweden and could potentially limit Americans' online entertainment choices.
The Internet is perfectly tuned for e-mail, says Roberts. But 40 years ago, he and the many others who helped nurture today's commercial Web never imagined, nor planned for, streaming high-definition television shows to travel through the wires.
But that's where online usage has headed. Nearly 16 percent of American households with Internet access now watch TV shows online, according to a report released last week by TNS and the Conference Board, two research groups based in New York. And the online audience for entire episodes has doubled over the past year. Now, with the new TV season, networks are making even more of their prime-time shows available to Web viewers.
Online streaming has a lot of perks. The episodes are on-demand, so you don't have to worry about missing your favorite show. You watch them while they download, so you don't have to wait an hour for the whole file to finish transferring.
But unlike shows downloaded from Apple's iTunes store, any hiccup in Internet service can leave characters hanging in mid-sentence – or drag action scenes to a crawl.
"This is an important time because it's just before video is about to become a big problem," says Roberts, who is now chairman and founder of Anagran in Redwood City, Calif. Last month, this Internet hardware firm unveiled a new "flow router" that he says can better manage today's Web traffic. Instead of treating every one and zero as the same, the Anagran router gives priority to important data – perhaps streaming video – over smaller, less-urgent files such as e-mail.
Searching for ways to work around today's Web, British technology company CacheLogic proposes a hybrid system that would allow videos to flow into your computer from different sources. First, a video distributor would store multiple copies of a file on computers around the world, so that wherever the viewer is, the video doesn't have to travel far. This practice is already well adopted by large distributors. But CacheLogic wants to supplement this method by drawing from computers that have already watched the video, adding a legal peer-to-peer file-sharing element to the mix.