The Ever-Growing Internet

The InternetI spent some time recently looking through several of Cisco’s periodic predictions about the future of the Internet. What is most fascinating is that they are predicting continuing rapid growth for almost every kind of Internet traffic. This is certainly a warning to all network owners – a lot more bandwidth usage will be coming your way.

Cisco predicts that total worldwide Internet usage will grow from 72 Exabytes (an Exabyte being one billion Gigabytes) per month in 2015 to 168 Exabytes per month in 2019. That’s an astounding 33% growth per year. They published a short chart of the history of global Internet bandwidth which is eye-popping. Following are some historical and predicted statistics of worldwide bandwidth usage:

  • 1992 100 GB per day
  • 1997 100 GB per hour
  • 2002 100 GB per second
  • 2007 2,000 GB per second
  • 2014 16,144 GB per second
  • 2019 51,794 GB per second

We know that the current bandwidth usage on the Internet has been driven by an explosion of residential video consumption. Cisco predicts that video will keep growing at a rapid pace. They predict that video bandwidth worldwide will grow from 40 Exabytes per month in 2015 to 140 Exabytes per month in 2019, an increase of 37% per year. Those volumes include all kinds of IP video including Netflix type services, IP Video on Demand, video files exchanged through file sharing, video-streamed gaming, and videoconferencing.

Perhaps the fastest growing segment of the Internet is Machine-to-Machine traffic. Cisco predicts M2M traffic will grow from 0.5 Petabytes (a Petabyte is 1 million Gigabytes) per month in 2015 to 4.6 Petabytes per month in 2019, an astounding 210% annual increase. The Internet has always had a core of M2M traffic as the devices that run the web communicate with each other. But all of the billions of devices we are now adding to the web annually also do some coordination. This can vary from the big bandwidth uses like smart cars to a smartphone or PC that is checking to see if it has the latest version of a software update.

Cisco also predicts that Internet speeds will get faster. For example, for North America they predict that from 2014 to 2019 the percentage of homes that can buy data speeds faster than 10 Mbps will grow from 58% to 74%, those that buy speeds greater than 25 Mbps will grow 33% to 45% and those that buy data speeds faster than 100 Mbps will grow from 2% to 8%.

They aren’t quite as rosy for cellular data speeds. They predict that North American speeds will grow from an average of 3 Mbps in 2015 to 6.4 Mbps in 2019. But they show that mobile devices now carry the majority of the data traffic worldwide. In 2014 mobile devices carried 54% of worldwide data traffic and by 2019 they predict that mobile devices will carry about 67% of worldwide traffic. It’s important to remember that outside of the US and Europe that mobile devices are the predominant gateway to broadband usage. Cisco also shows that the vast majority of mobile device traffic use WiFi rather than cellular networks.

Perhaps the statistic that matters most to network engineers is that busy hour traffic (the busiest 60-minute period of the day) is growing about 5% faster per year than the growth of average traffic. ISPs need to buy capacity to handle the busy hour and the demands of video traffic are increasingly coming in the busiest hours.

Cisco shows that the volumes of metro traffic (traffic that stays within a region) already passed long-haul traffic in 2014, and by 2019 they predict that 66% of all web traffic will be metro traffic.

Russia and the Internet

Russian flagWe’ve all known for a long time that the Chinese have their own version of the Internet within the country. The Golden Shield, which the west has dubbed the “Great Firewall of China” is a huge government apparatus that closely monitors and edits everything that happens on the Chinese Internet.

And now we are perhaps seeing Russia starting down a similar path. There is a new Russian law that takes effect on September 1 that is going to start fundamentally changing the way the Internet works in that country. The law basically requires that anybody that obtains information online from a Russian citizen must store that data on servers that are physically located in Russia.

This law was ostensibly created to protect the country against the spying of the US government and the commercial tracking done by US corporations. But of course, this also provides a great tool for the Russian government to monitor everything going in and out of the country.

American companies like Google and Facebook are going to have to locate servers in Russia and abide by the Russian rules if they want to have Russian citizens using their services. Some of them will certainly do that, but you have to wonder in the future how many start-ups will make the effort to do this, and over time one would expect Russia to get more and more separated from the US Internet companies.

Probably of more concern are the various European companies that have a lot more Russian users than do the US companies. This change effectively walls Russia off from the rest of the world including its nearby neighbors and trading partners.

It’s unlikely for now that the Russians will go as far as the Chinese. The Chinese completely censor large parts of the content on the web including pornography, anything pro-democracy, religious content such as anything having to do with the Dalai Lama, anything having to do with Taiwan, anything having to do with protests inside the country, and anything else they decide to block. But still, for the Russians to know that their content is not leaving the country they are going to have to look at everything closely.

One would assume that the Russians will use the same techniques used by the Chinese to enforce the new law. This includes such things as IP blocking, DNS filtering and redirection, USL filtering, packet filtering, VPN recognition and blocking, and active IP probing.

I just wrote last week how the basic architecture of the Internet promotes freedom. While this architecture was originated largely in the US, over time much of the rest of the world has joined into the governance of the web and the basic architecture is now accepted by most countries.

But obviously Russia, China, and a few other countries have a very different view of what the web ought to be, and largely for totalitarian purposes of controlling their citizens. Anybody who has read any science fiction, even back to Orwell’s 1984, understands how the Internet could easily be turned into a tool of control.

What we are likely to see with Russia is the same thing we see today with China. Outside companies often come to China to create a presence and to expand their footprint, but over time many of them leave in protest against the control they are subjected to.

It’s unlikely that Russia and China will have much influence in changing the web architecture for everybody else. What is more likely is that their citizens will not partake in the newest innovations on the web, for the good or bad they will create. But most countries already today understand how important the web is for their industries and for most countries that’s a good enough reason not to tinker with something that works.

The Architecture of the Internet – Freedom Encoded

The InternetThe early architects had a clear vision about what they thought the Internet should be. The folks who worked to create the Internet were largely technical liberals and they deliberately created some of what we consider the best aspects of the web today.

The Internet is amazing when you stop and think about it. It’s a framework that moves packets of information without any central management or control. It moves these bits without bias based on the content, the sender, or the type of application. It enables any two people to connect and communicate without asking permission. In effect, the underlying architecture of the Internet values free and open access to information, the ability for people to express themselves and read and post comments, and a platform for the creation of open markets for both goods and ideas.

There was a lot of discussion about this in the early years of the Internet and the underlying framework we have now was not the only option. But in the end the architecture of the Internet reflects the beliefs and mores of the technical liberals who created it and who thought that allowing free expression was the most important aspect to build into the new platform.

What we often forget is that everything about the Internet is code, and code can be changed. In the US as we still largely enjoy the open platform that was first created, it’s easy to think that the Internet is the same everywhere. But it clearly is not. There are those extreme places like North Korea that largely blocks its citizens from having access to the web. But much more common these days are countries that are building a firewall around themselves and modifying the basic code of the Internet to their own liking.

The biggest example of this is the Great Firewall of China that has found a way to layer a centralized authority over the basic Internet topology. In China nothing a person does on the Internet is assumed to be private and everything passes through hordes of state monitors who keep a close eye on what people say and do on the web. People routinely get jailed there for something they say on the Internet and so their flavor of the Internet has turned into the exact opposite of what we have in the US today and what the original creators of the Internet intended.

The original Internet was heady stuff for technology geeks when they were the main people using the new media. I remember the days of Usenet when there were discussion boards on thousands of topics, and for the most part the conversations on these boards were civil, informational, and entertaining. It was an experience of watching the brightest people in the world discussing topics of interest.

But over time there were overlays developed that made the Internet more accessible to everyone. First came platforms like Compuserve and AOL that provided each person with a home page to tailor their Internet experience. This quickly brought tens of millions of people to the Internet where before there had been only tens of thousands.

And those early platforms have been superseded by social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit that brought hundreds of millions of people to the Internet. Today there is such a proliferation of platforms that you can no longer point to an Internet experience that is shared by even a majority of people. You can be a heavy Internet user and only use one or two applications like Facebook, Netflix, or Pinterest.

And one can argue that you are a big Internet user if all you do is play games on your smartphone. There is such a wide array of applications available that people are free to pick and choose one or many as fits their preference and lifestyle.

But interestingly, in most of the world the underlying framework is largely unchanged. Much of the same basic code that established how bits are routed is still in place. The basic protocols have largely been upgraded, mostly due to finding ways to protect against hacking, but the same basic processes still govern how a given user interfaces with the rest of the world.

As we saw with the protesters in Hong Kong last year, even in places like China that keep a tight lid on the Internet, a group of determined users can find a way to bypass the central authority and communicate with each other without being monitored. We still have the original creators of the Internet to thank for this because that freedom all derives from the underlying architecture. Unless the fundamental structure of how the Internet routes bits changes, the ability to find free expression is always going to be there for the determined user.

Is the Internet a Necessity?

The InternetIn a speech recently made by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, he said that the Internet was “not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans.” That’s a rather startling statement from somebody who seemingly has the job of making sure that the country has adequate broadband to meet its needs. But if we look at his statements in context, it raises some important policy issues that are worth public discussion.

O’Rielly made the comment as a counterargument to the spreading concept that access to the Internet has become a necessity, perhaps even a right. It’s also widely expressed today that broadband is now a utility, much like electricity and water.

It’s an interesting discussion. Several surveys in the last few years show that a significant majority of households rank Internet access as the most important service purchased at their homes. I certainly know that my daughter and all of her 16-year old friends would ‘die’ without the Internet and it seems like the younger you are, the more the Internet is an important component of daily life.

But O’Rielly’s comment was really a political and policy statement. There are certainly a lot of implications for governments if the country adopts the idea that having Internet access is a right. For instance, that would put a lot more pressure to bring Internet access to the places that don’t yet have it and to work hard to close the gap in the quality of the Internet between urban and rural places.

But it seems to me that the FCC has largely already bought into the argument that the Internet is a necessity. They are pouring billions of dollars into improving rural broadband. They are going to subsidize broadband access to low income households. They have adopted net neutrality as a policy which, to some degree, protects the ability of consumers to get what they pay for from an ISP. These all seem like the actions of an agency who thinks that everybody ought to have access to broadband.

FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler responded to O’Rielly’s statement by saying that “broadband is the defining infrastructure of the 21st century. We should not and will not let up on our policies that make broadband more available.”

It’s obvious that Internet access is now a fundamental part of daily life for many people. I work from my home and I can’t imagine how I would function without it. Actually, I can imagine it, because after a hurricane and tornado hit me a few years ago I was without power and Internet access for 6 weeks. I basically regressed to what felt like the Stone Age. I essentially threw my hands up and gave up on work (and spent the time instead cleaning up the huge mess the storm left behind). I use the Internet almost continuously in making my living and as a society we have grown to a place where there is no realistic substitute for email and the ability to quickly exchange files and work products with others.

This is an issue that hundreds of municipalities are wrestling with. Communities look in envy at urban places that have great Internet bandwidth and they understand that if they don’t have adequate Internet in their community that they are liable to decline economically and fade away from relevance. Internet access is to cities today what the railroads were two centuries ago, and what electricity and Interstate highways were in the last century. Put into that context it starts feeling a lot like a necessity, at least at the community level.

I work with dozens of rural communities that have limited or no Internet access today. It’s heart-wrenching to hear people talk about trying to maintain a household of teenagers with only a cellular wireless plan or to hear parents lament that their kids can’t keep up in school without access to the Internet. For the vast majority of us who have Internet access it’s really hard to imagine going without.

I understand where Commissioner O’Rielly is coming from. He was formerly a Republican congressional aide and the Republicans feel generally that there are few ‘rights’ that the Federal government is obligated to recognize. But on this specific topic he might be on the wrong side of history, because my guess is that the vast majority of people in this country have grown to believe that having Internet access is a right and is something they cannot live without.

Is the Internet Already Broken?

The InternetI’ve always been interested in the people who run the Internet behind the scenes. The process is known as Internet governance and it’s not the kind of topic that makes for many news articles, but the governance process has gotten us to the Internet we have today, which is very impressive. But there are changes in the governance coming that has some people worried.

Last year it was announced that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a US government agency, was going to to relinquish its oversight of the global Internet naming authority ICANN (International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). ICANN is the private nonprofit organization that oversees how domains are named and assigned, and until now the US has had formal oversight of the process.

Adding to this, there is a huge amount of concern worldwide about how the Internet is being used to spy on governments and people everywhere. Edward Snowden showed that the NTA is basically spying on everybody. Since then it’s been revealed that many other governments are doing the same sort of thing.

Last month one of my blogs had a poll that showed that people in the US don’t like being spied upon, but that as a whole we think it’s okay to spy on everybody else. As you can easily imagine, all of those other people don’t think that is a very comforting idea. And so we now have a number of countries looking for ways to somehow build a firewall around the data originating in their country.

As the NTIA is transitioning out of the governance of the Internet, there is a worldwide scramble to figure out what is going to replace it. The latest buzzword associated with this effort is ‘multi-stakeholder internet governance’, meaning the discussions are asking how the concerns of each country are to be heard in the process. There is a lot of talk going on about ruling by consensus. And this makes a lot of technology experts uneasy, an unease which can quickly be understood when looking to see how other multi-national consensus-based efforts at places like the UN actually function.

The general open concepts of the Internet as we know it today are based upon the strong views of the tech people who built the Internet that it ought to be open and free whenever possible. And so we ended up with this wonderful free-for-all that we call the web where ideas and content of all varieties are available to all. And those tech people are rightfully concerned of somehow handing the decisions off to bureaucrats who won’t care what works the best but who will bring other agendas into the governance process.

Governments around the globe differ extremely by what they want their citizens to see or not see on the web. Even a country that is as close to us culturally as England has some very different Internet policies and has built screens and firewalls that stop citizens from viewing pornography and a large list of other types of content. At the extreme end of that range are places like North Korea that doesn’t let the average citizen see the Internet at all.

And so many of the folks who have been governing the Internet behind the scenes are worrying if we have already broken the Internet as it was originally structured. This issue is not so readily apparent to Americans since we filter very little of the Internet here other than the effort that ISPs make to block malware generating sites.

But much of the rest of the world has already started down the path to wall themselves off from us us and this trend is building momentum. We probably will reach multinational consensus on the easy stuff – how to name web sites and how to route things. But one can legitimately ask if the Internet is already broken when there are already so many countries that block their citizens from using large chunks of what we Americans think of as the Internet.