News that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has gone in to labor today has reverberated around the world at viral speeds. Every major news network has reporters waiting with bated breath outside the steps of the St. Mary’s Hospital in London. #RoyalBaby has been trending for more than a week and the merchandise potential is huge.
But the birth of this particular royal is different from any other that has ever gone before in this millennia-old institution for two reasons. Firstly, the law of succession was recently changed to ensure that if the child is a girl, a younger brother wouldn’t be able to pinch her claim. Secondly, as we’ve been told countless times, this is the first time the future king or queen of the United Kingdom and the 15 other commonwealth realms has been born in the presence of social media.
As soon as the placard is strung to the gates of Buckingham Palace to announce the birth, gender and weight of the royal baby, people will tweet, prepared articles will be posted on news sites, and there will be a veritable explosion of Internet chatter to herald the little prince or princess’ entrance to this world.
That got us thinking, theoretically speaking of course, could there ever be an outburst of Internet traffic large enough that would overwhelm the system and cause it to fail? A royal birth is probably one of the largest of such outbursts. So, is the Internet breakable? And could the royal baby be about to break it?
“I guess anything could break”
“I guess anything could break,” says Daniel Stoller, Vice President of Technology Strategy at Time Warner Cable. Speaking hypothetically he says that today’s infrastructure would struggle if, for example, all of TV was suddenly consumed via the web and the web only–rather than a royal birth. Demand for Internet is growing at an unprecedented rate and Stoller stresses that it’ll take time for cable companies to ensure that they’ll be able to deal with the future’s data guzzling ways.
Just how quickly consumer demand for bandwidth is growing–and therefore how much time cable companies have to address the increasing demans–varies slightly, depending on who you’re asking. Chris Parente, a communications consultant for technology companies in Virginia, says the latest figures he’s seen estimate that “by 2016 Internet traffic will reach 1.3 zettabytes.” Put differently, “that’s roughly a 4 times increase in traffic since 2011.” Marisa Viveros, Vice President at IBM’s cyber security innovation department, says they expect “demand for data services to increase 26 times by 2015.”
“They wouldn’t believe that YouTube could ever happen”
Those approximations aren’t necessarily contradicting but no matter who you talk to, everyone agrees that demand for Internet will continue to rise–and steeply.
If it seems miraculous that broadband will be able to keep pace with such rapid increases in demand over the next few years, let alone in the coming decades, then you’ve only to glance back over the Internet’s short history. It’s a story of rapidly growing and improving infrastructure. The way we use the Internet today would have seemed near-impossible just a couple of years ago. “If you were to go back a decade and tell people that the Internet would be fast enough to stream video they wouldn’t believe it. They wouldn’t believe that YouTube could ever happen,” says Jeffrey Schiller from MIT’s Information Services and Technology Department.
Schiller says the only way to handle the tidal wave of demand that’s heading the Internet’s way in the coming decades is to upgrade the infrastructure. He says there’s no scientific reason that Internet of tomorrow shouldn’t be capable of streaming ultra-high definition video, it’ll just take time, money and effort. Schiller and other experts expect that upgrades will probably come in time and be sufficient to keep the cogs and wheels of broadband turning.
So it seems the soon to be British prince or princess isn’t going to break Internet, nor will future ones–unless we bury our heads in the sand. Even if we did a full-on desert submersion, it’s pretty unlikely that the Internet would physically ‘break’ per se. It’s more likely you’d become better acquainted with the spinning rainbow pinwheel of doom as the Internet became nauseatingly and maddeningly slow. “It’d just buffer forever,” says Schiller.
Stoller says there are a number ways cable companies like Time Warner are ensuring America’s Internet will be up to snuff to cope with the future’s data demands.
Firstly, they’re expanding the pipes. That’s straightforward; a wider bandwidth can tolerate more signals at once. They’re literally making more room for the Internet.
Secondly, they’re building more pipes – that’s also easy to understand: more pipes, more room, more signals, more Internet.
Thirdly, there’s the option of changing and evolving the way that we use the pipes to make sure we’re getting the most out of them. That’s ensuring that data jams are kept to a minimum. Compressing files more often; reducing the size of the stuff you’re sending over the pipes and expanding them again when they arrive on your computer. There’s also modulation, which varies the frequencies and amplitudes of signals to allow several of them to travel down the same pipe simultaneously.
Viveros says IBM is looking at ways to squeeze the most out of the networks we already have by using “data analytics to identify usage patterns and changes in work loads.” They’re working out how we use the Internet to anticipate when a specific site might experience especially high traffic so they can direct additional resources to make sure it doesn’t crash–similar to the way England borrows extra electricity from France during half time of an international soccer match (or royal birth), as the nation gets up to boil the kettle in unison.
Cable companies say they’re scattering their eggs evenly; no one basket is burdened too heavily, “we’re pulling on all the levers. That’s one of the industry advantages, we have multi-options,” says Stoller.
Schiller offers another idea into the mix. Right now, if you were to download a podcast or TV show from iTunes, it wouldn’t be beamed directly to your device from Apple’s HQ in California (unless you happened to be close by). It’d come from a library server much closer to you–from one of a network of thousands peppered across the States. These servers contain archived episodes of The Bridge, True Blood or whatever it was you were downloading. That shortens the distance the data has to travel to reach you and lessens the burden placed on the infrastructure network. Schiller suggests that a similar network of servers with preloaded content of call kinds dotted over the country could help to shorten the download time and increase the chances of smoothly transitioning to the future’s Internet.
So as you send that tweet to announce your disappointment that the new baby doesn’t share your name, know you’re taking part in an unprecedented and inescapable deluge of Internet traffic by royal appointment.