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Power and capacity threats to internet

News, 05 May 2015

LONDON: The debates on net neutrality currently taking place in the US and India could be superseded by new threats highlighted by UK scientists – the power demands being made by the internet and the capacity demands being made on the internet.

"The internet is already consuming at least 8% of Britain's power output, equivalent to the output of three nuclear power stations, and demand is soaring," Andrew Ellis, professor of optical communications at Aston University, told the Sunday Times.

That figure was the bottom end of the range. Data storage and transmission, along with access devices such as PCs and televisions, could be consuming as much as 16% of power output. And consumption is reckoned to be doubling every four years.

"It is growing so fast, currently at an exponential rate, that, in theory, it could be using all the UK power generation by 2035," he added.

A number of implications follow. "We cannot make all that extra power, so we will have to restrict or reduce [internet] access, perhaps by metering consumers so they pay for what they use," Ellis stated.

The internet's capacity is also being called into question, as the boom in online video is eating up existing bandwidth; cables and switches could hit their limits within the next five years.

"It's the first time we have had to worry about optical fibres actually filling up," said Andrew Lord, head of optical access at telco BT.

"We could expand the network by laying more cables" he added, "but the economics of that do not work and it would increase power consumption."

And, rather like the tendency of the UK's newly built roads to rapidly become clogged with traffic rather than relieving it, he expects that new cables would in any case fill within a couple of years of being installed.

Again, the likely solution would involve some form of rationing with users being charged for data usage. "If we don't fix this then in ten years' time the internet could have to cost more," Lord said.

Such developments could render irrelevant current debates around net neutrality and whether website owners should be allowed to pay a premium to ensure fast content delivery and then pass that cost on to their customers, or brands permitted to pay consumers' data charges so they can use their apps for free.

Data sourced from Sunday Times; additional content by Warc staff