Caution: Heavy Internet traffic ahead. Delays possible.
For months there has been a rising chorus of alarm about the surging growth in the amount of data flying across the Internet. The threat, according to some industry groups, analysts, and researchers, stems mainly from the increasing visual richness of online communications and entertainment.
Moving images, far more than words or sounds, require more bandwidth. Last year, by one estimate, the video site YouTube, owned by Google, consumed as much bandwidth as the entire Internet did in 2000.
In a widely cited report published last November, a research firm projected that user demand for the Internet could outpace network capacity by 2011.
But the Internet traffic surge represents more a looming challenge than an impending catastrophe. Even those most concerned are not predicting a lights-out Internet crash. An individual user, they say, would experience Internet clogging in the form of sluggish download speeds and frustration with data-heavy services that become much less useful or enjoyable.
"The Internet doesn't collapse, but there would be a growing class of stuff you just can't do online," said Johna Till Johnson, president of Nemertes Research, which predicted the bandwidth crunch by 2011.
Others are less worried, at least in the short term. Andrew M. Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota, estimates that digital traffic on the global network is growing about 50 percent a year, in line with a recent analysis by Cisco Systems, the big network equipment maker.
That sounds like a daunting rate of growth. Yet the technology for handling Internet traffic is advancing at an impressive pace as well.
"The 50 percent growth is high. It's huge, but it basically corresponds to the improvements that technology is giving us," said Odlyzko, a former AT&T Labs researcher.