What’s Clogging Up the Pipes

3/21/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

at claims by an elected official in
Canada that “additional usage billing,”
as they call it up there, should
be overruled because there’s no evidence
of congestion on the Internet.

This week, we’ll go a little
deeper into what’s clogging the
network — because it’s not just
Netflix bits causing that sustained,
45% (and higher) compound annual growth in
broadband Internet usage.

First let’s hit the obvious: There are more subscribers,
buying more devices that want to attach
to the network. Look around your house. Bet you a
dime there’s at least 10 items seeking an Internet
connection (don’t forget digital picture frames,
game players and all of your handheld gadgetry).

Then there’s the very nature of the “adaptive
codec,” also known as “fragmented MPEG-4.”
MPEG-4 is the latest chapter in video compression.
It works by chunking a compressed video
stream into several different sizes, then sending
along the right size for how much bandwidth is
available. Congested network? Send the smaller
chunk. Lots of elbow room? Send the biggest
one you can. For that reason, adaptive streaming
behaves like a gas, filling all available space
— or network pipe, in this case.

Here’s one that’s start to show up more:
machine-to-machine computing. Tony Werner, chief
technology officer of Comcast, pointed out during
his keynote at the SCTE Canada Summit on March
8 that while population growth is less than 1% per
year, machines are growing at 50% per year —
many of them network-connected and talking.

What does that mean? Not a lot of bits, but lots
of machines moving them: software updates, virus
updates, distributed computing. Like the fun-to-say
“Berkley BOINC” (pronounced “boink”), described
as follows on its website: “Use the idle time on your
computer to cure diseases, study global warming,
discover pulsars, and do many other types of scientific
research.” Early on, a predominant use was
“SETI,” for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”
All of your geekier friends had it. These days, my
favorite is the Electric Sheep screen saver.

Then there’s pixels per person, which measures
the amount of screen we look at as humans. Right
now, and according to data from Cisco Systems’
ongoing VNI (Visual Networking Index) research,
you view 1.4 million pixels; within three years, that
nearly doubles — you’ll be looking at screens with
an aggregate pixel count of 2.3 million.

Does broadband usage ever plateau? Doesn’t
seem likely. That’s good news for all the stuff we
do electronically; bad news for those who built,
maintain and augment those broadband pipelines.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at or