The arrival of the iPad prompts a question that has been asked many times before but deserves serious attention: will our networks be swamped by internet data traffic?
Perhaps scared of being branded as doom-mongers, pundits seem remarkably quiet on this question and may have been put off by the fact that it was first raised a decade-and-a-half ago in the age of dial-up modems and web pages dominated by plain text with the occasional image and animated GIF. The internet didn’t collapse and since then we have seen the carriers meet the bandwidth challenge posed by an escalating audience, rich media, file sharing, digital music and streaming. Also, it is likely that the iPad alone — wildly popular phenomenon though it might be — will not be a straw of sufficient dimensions and mass to break the camel’s back.
But the iPad is significant to the bandwidth question in that it might well be the first connected device that finds widespread usage as a vehicle for carrying media content. Rupert Murdoch has, famously, already hailed it as a product that could be the saviour of the newspaper publishers and publishers are likely to optimise their sites for iPads and other tablet devices such as the Dell Streak if they become similarly popular.
So far, no big problem. People using iPads instead of using iPhones or laptops will not in itself represent a step change in network contention. But the iPad and its ilk are also a perfect fit for a type of content that is far more challenging for network operators — video.
Video, and high-definition video in particular, is the cholesterol of the network and any major change in usage could see significant hardening of the communications arteries. In major urban conurbations we already sometimes experience cellular networks coming under strain so imagine that experience magnified by tens of thousands of users streaming video or downloading clips. And yet video is going to be an increasingly attractive medium for publishers to attract subscribers and maintain customer loyalty. Newspaper publishers like Murdoch have already built companies that combine traditional print properties with web sites, TV and movie franchises and internet access. It can’t be long before newspaper subs are packaged alongside broadband, TV and other services. Video will surely be a key element of such offers.
“Internet strain is only going to get because of one basic word: video,” said Neil Sutton, vice president for global portfolio at BT Global Services when I asked him about this at a roundtable last week. “The internet wasn’t designed for video. Mobile data has grown by 200 per cent over the last couple of years but revenue from it has grown only three or four per cent so how are the operators going to cope? They’re offloading to fixed networks but you’ve still got real problems. It’s going to be tough from a mobile point of view.”
So far, carriers have improvised well with network management but the advent of tablets designed to carry video and rich media content could ask some very serious questions about the state of our connectivity. And of course any weakness in the network will queer the pitch for one of the claims made for cloud computing: that of a Martini-like ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ device-independent connection.