Skyrocketing internet usage could spell the end of all-you-can-eat broadband – but new technology is finding ways to keep pace with demand
Underlying the controversy is a technological scramble to keep pace with skyrocketing internet use. At the turn of the millennium, the 860 megahertz of radio spectrum carried by a coaxial cable was mostly taken up by cable companies sending standard analogue video in 6-MHz bands. The rise of broadband changed all that, and repackaging the signal as digital video allowed companies to pack channels much more tightly, “getting a 10 to 1 efficiency improvement in frequency use” compared with standard video, says Chris Busch of Incognito Software, whose products monitor internet usage. That freed up spectrum for broadband.
Yet demand continues to push the infrastructure to its limits. This is mostly driven by video usage: last year Netflix accounted for an astonishing one-third of all downstream internet traffic in the US, with YouTube videos taking another 10 per cent. And online gaming can run to 10 gigabytes a month per person. Australian carrier WhistleOut, for example, urges gamers to sign up for at least 20 GB per month, and video downloaders 100 GB.
AT&T recently announced it would cap some customers’ usage at 150 GB per month. At around 4 GB per HD movie, that doesn’t amount to much. Time Warner has tested caps as low as 5 GB, and Comcast, which has had a 250 GB cap in the past, says it too is experimenting with more stringent pay-as-you-go schemes.