come to an end in 2012: The Internet will be full.

A recent article in the UK Sunday Times has joined the growing babble about the *critical point* of Internet status, warning that by 2012 the Internet will have regular “brownouts” because of bandwidth-sucking websites like YouTube. I mean, how many times can you watch that ode to womanhood, Cop Rock’s “More Like a Woman”?  Or check out Susan Brown’s competition? Or more likely watch stupid pet tricks?

While the alarmist voice of the Times deals more directly with the UK situation, where providers are dealing with the outmoded copper-cable system, instead of the United States, where the majority of the “tubes” are made of fiberoptics, we aren’t immune to the problem. A study that came out 18 months ago from the Nemertes Research Group 
finds that “although core fiber and switching/routing resources will scale nicely to support virtually any conceivable user demand, Internet access infrastructure, specifically in North America, will likely cease to be adequate for supporting demand within the next three to five years."

Users are asking their Internet to do more, with music downloads, interactive and streaming video (Hulu, anyone?) a growing practice. All these take up huge bandwidth, as evidenced by this CNN report  that states that “the number of American users frequenting online video destinations has climbed 339 percent since 2003, and time spent on video sites has shot up almost 2,000 percent over the same period.”

Consumer demand, the Times said, is growing at 60 percent a year, and with the economic downturn, it is expected that people will spend more time on computers for entertainment than going out. Additionally, more people each year work online, shop online, pay bills online, book hotels and airline flights online—virtually every sector of the day impacts the Internet.

So what should we do? Rip out our hair? Prepare for the end times? Build more tubes?

None of the above, actually. (Though see other articles on this site re: preparing for disasters.)

The reality is that the Internet is not contained. It is space.  And like space, it is infinite. From WikiAnswers: “as long as there is space available on computer harddrives there is theoretically no limit.”

However, there are practical concerns.
The first is the real question of Internet Protocol (IP) numbers. There are a finite number of these. It’s like in the olden days when you rang up a friend on the telephone by giving the personal service operator three numbers; now we have seven digits with an area code. Same with IP numbers, according to The Times.

While we started out with 4.2 billion separate IPv4 connections, each with 32 bits, there are about 10 percent of those left, and they’re expected to run out this year or next. But there’s a plan to expand with IPv6 connections, each of which have 128 bits, and so, according to the Times,  “provides 340 trillion, trillion, trillion different addresses - that is 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.”  This is apparently enough for everyone on the earth for some time to come. You will be able to use your current address—this will just allow new ones to be created, and it’s expected that the two systems will run concurrently.

CNN, however, reports that businesses are reluctant to switch, and Harvard professor Benjamin Edelstein indicates the bottleneck which might occur as a result “could seriously hamper the Internet.”   

“If new technology businesses can't acquire sufficient IP addresses it will be difficult for them to get a foothold in the industry,” he said.

Edelstein also suggests as an interim move that companies who have unused blocks of IP addresses acquired early in Internet history might be willing to recycle them back into the system—for a price.

This will likely open up the question once again of net neutrality and the possibility of a graduated scale of payment for access to broader sections of the Internet. This issue of “backbone capacity” is an entry for ISP companies to enter quotas and set caps on service usage. Time Warner Cable, Charter and Comcast have all tried to set caps and have been roundly criticized by customers. It’s a problem that bears watching for each of us with our own providers.

So are we running out of space?  Probably not. Will those who provide internet service to us have to consider how best to manage what space and access exists? Absolutely.

One possible solution is that providers might upgrade everyone to high-speed Internet such as DSL and cable modem. The Internet is only as fast as its weakest links, and dial-up/modems actually slow things down, dragging bandwidth away from other users. People are now very attached to their Interwebs, and so it is likely that new, creative solutions will be proposed to meet the demand as the century progresses.