There is an interesting conversation happening in England about the true cost of operating the Internet. As an island nation, all of the costs of operating the network must be borne by the whole country, and so every part of the Internet cost chain is being recognized and counted as a cost. That’s very different than the way we do it here.
There are two issues that are concerning British officials – power costs and network capacity. Reports are that operating the data centers and the electronics hubs needed to operate the Internet now consume 8% of all of the power produced in the country. And it’s growing rapidly. At the current rate of growth of Internet consumption it’s estimated that the power requirements needed for the Internet are doubling every four years.
Here in the US we don’t have as much of the same concern about power costs. First, we have hundreds of different power companies scattered across the country and we don’t produce electricity in the same places that we use the Internet. But second, in this country the large data centers are operated by the large billion-dollar companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook who can afford to pay the electric bills, mostly due to advertising revenues. But in a country like England, that sort of drain on electricity capacity must be borne by all electric rate payers when the whole grid hits capacity and must somehow be upgraded.
And it’s going to get a lot worse. If the pace of power consumption needed for broadband doesn’t somehow slow down, then by 2035 the Internet will be using all of the power produced in the British Isles today. It’s not likely that the power needs will grow quite that fast. For example, there are far more power-efficient routers and switches being made for data centers that are going to knock the power demand curve down a notch, but there is no reason to think that the demand for Internet usage is going to stop growing anytime soon.
In Britain they are also worried about the cost of maintaining the network. They say that the bulk of their electronics need to be upgraded in the next few years. In the industry we always talk about fiber being a really long-term investment, and the fiber is so good today that we really don’t know how long it’s going to last – 50 years, 75 years, longer? But that is not true for the electronics. Those electronics have to be replaced every 7 to 10 years and that can be expensive.
In this country all of the companies and cities that were early adopters of FTTP technology used BPON – the first Fiber-to-the-premise technology. This technology was the best thing at the time and was far faster than cable modems – but that is no longer the case. BPON is limited in two major ways. First, as happens with many technologies, the manufacturers all stopped supporting BPON. That means it’s hard to buy replacement parts and a BPON network is at major risk of failure if one of the larger core components of the network dies.
BPON is also different enough from newer technologies that the new replacements, like GPON, are not backwards compatible. This means that in order to upgrade to a newer version of fiber technology every electronic component in the network from the core to the ONTs on customer premises must be replaced, making upgrades very costly. Even the way BPON is strung to homes is different, meaning that there is fiber field work needed to upgrade it. We have hopefully gotten smarter lately; a lot of fiber electronics today are being designed to still work with later generations of equipment.
This is what happened in England. The country’s telecoms were early adopters of fiber and so the electronics throughout the country are already aged and running out of capacity. I saw a British article where the author was worried that the networks were getting ‘full’ and that more fiber would have to be built. The author didn’t recognize that upgrading electronics instead can use existing fiber to deliver a lot more data.
England is one of the wealthier nations on the global scale and one has to be concerned about how the poorer parts of the world are going to deal with these issues. As we introduce the Internet into Africa and other poorer nations one has to ask how a poor country that already has trouble generating enough electricity is going to be able to handle the demand caused by the Internet? And how will poorer nations keep up with the constant upgrades needed to keep the networks operating?
Perhaps I am worrying about nothing and maybe we will finally see the cheap fusion reactors that have been just over the horizon since I was a teenager. But when a country like England talks about the possible need to ration Internet usage, or to somehow meter it so that big users pay a lot more, one has to be concerned. In our country the big ISPs always complain about profits, but they are wildly profitable. The US and a few other nations are very spoiled and we can take the continued growth of the Internet for granted. Much of the rest of the world, however, is going to have a terrible time keeping up, and that is not good for mankind as a whole.