How much video can the Internet bear?

Some people think that the rapidly growing amount of streaming video and peer-to-peer file exchange will bring the Internet to the verge of collapse. If you listen to Cisco, this won’t happen. In their White Papers “The Exabyte Era” and “Global IP Traffic Forecast and Methodology, 2006–2011” Cisco comes to the conclusion that video and peer-to-peer on the Net will continue to grow, but not enough to threaten the Internet. According to Cisco, P2P traffic’s share will even decrease from 62 percent (2006) to 30 percent (2011). At the same time Internet video will grow to 30 percent of consumer traffic.

However, Cisco leaves a door open for “traffic surprises”. The huge volume of video makes Internet traffic less predictable, which could lead to “unexpected scenarios” that may prove Cisco’s forecast “too conservative” (in their own words) or, put more bluntly, wrong (in my words).

Despite the uncertainties of Cisco’s predictions, the White Papers contain some interesting insights. According to Cisco, Internet video to PC via YouTube and other providers is only the first step. The next step will be Internet video to TV screen, and beyond 2015, the third wave of video traffic will be dominated by video communications. The bandwidth burden of high-definition video communications will be the most difficult to mitigate.

Mainly driven by Internet video, Cisco expects global IP traffic to grow to 29 exabytes per month by 2011, of which 17 exabytes will be related to video. Just in case you are wondering what exactly an exabyte is: it equals one quintillion bytes – that is a “one” with 18 “zeros”. To give you an idea of the order of magnitude: all words ever spoken by human beings could be stored in about 5 exabytes of data, according to the Berkeley study “How Much Information?” published in 2003.

Apart from the question how much video the Internet can bear, we should also ask ourselves how much video we humans can bear.


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