This is not a trick question. Think about that question. I had no choice but to think about it, when I recently lost Internet connectivity on two unrelated occasions. And I didn’t like, what seemed to be, the obvious answer.
In this post we’ll take a realistic look at the Internet bandwidth at YOUR home, and figure out who ate the Internet. And then we’ll expand the discussion a bit and look at how fragile Internet infrastructure is on the world stage.
This Discovery Gave me the Creeps
I’m sure that all of us take Internet connectivity for granted. After all, you can get connected to the Web from just about anywhere; at eateries, at the library, at hotel/motels, even at gas stations. When all else fails, we can simply pick up our smart phones or iPads and get connected via the nearest cell phone tower. Well, some of us can do that.
Now I don’t exactly live in the dark ages. But I do live in the remote, sparsely populated area of far Northern Wisconsin. The best that you can do for Internet service in my area is to “get connected” via CenturyLink’s telephone wire which supports both our telephone service and our DSL Internet service. The DSL Internet service is 1.5 Mbps; hardly what I would call DSL. For comparison sake, DSL over a cable service in a metropolitan area, like Milwaukee, can be as fast as 50-60 Mbps. But the cable companies like Charter or Comcast Cable, do not have cables in rural areas. The population of rural areas are too sparse to make stringing cables over that distance profitable. Satellite Internet service is an option, but very expensive.
My 1.5 Mbps Internet service over a telephone line costs $40/month. Over Wildblue’s satellite service, that same 1.5 Mbps is $80/month. If I were to subscribe to Exede’s satellite service, I could get 12 Mbps for $65/month plus $10/month to lease equipment. For comparison sake, 6-8 Mbps Internet service in metropolitan areas normally runs $20/month.
I used to have a Droid X2 smart phone with a built-in hotspot. Reception was good in the winter but poor in the summer. Then I learned from Verizon that in order to use the hotspot (that was already built into my Droid) for my desktop computers, I would have to pay them another $25/month. I discontinued the service. They were already soaking me for $80/month, including $30/month for data, and I felt that I ought to be allowed to use the features of my Droid without additional cost. The phone alone, was not exactly cheap!
So I have three computers running on a 1.5 Mbps phone line. And that has served us well. That’s not blazing fast. But it’s not slow either.
And then it happened………………….
Spring had arrived and the “snow birds” were returning to their summer homes. Snow birds are local residents who choose not to spend their winters in northern Wisconsin. So they go south for the winter to some place warm. Sometime beginning in mid-May to Memorial Day weekend, they return. With the population of our little community increasing by 30%-40% in the spring and summer, more demand is placed on the bandwidth of the telephone lines which carry Internet services to our homes.
We watched each week as the speed of our Internet service dwindled from 1.5 Mbps to 1.2 Mbps all the way down to .23 Mbps. Between 2 P.M. and by 7 P.M., Internet response was so bad that we gave up and shut the computers off completely.
I had visions of all the kids in our community sitting in front of their laptops gaming on the Internet and downloading Netflix movies all afternoon which they would watch later that evening. Or worse yet, they were watching movies over the Internet using live, streaming video without having previously downloaded the movie. That would be like trying to push an elephant through a straw, considering that they were using the same 1.5 Mbps Internet service that I was using. After all, we have lived here since 1999 with no Internet issues at all until now – 2013. The problem had to be the “Internet hogs” that just returned to their summer homes from Arizona, Florida, California or wherever they went for the winter to find warmth. My Internet service was fine during the winter!
I put up with this for a couple of days. On the third day, the proverbial poop hit the fan. No Internet service at all. Just “Waiting…..” on the screen. That’s when reality hit me. I can’t live without the Internet. I felt angry, vulnerable, stressed out, worried. I couldn’t even get online long enough to pay my bills. Paying bills with “snail mail” is tedious and slow. There would be late charges and interest. Some accounts might bounce if I couldn’t get online to shuffle money between accounts. I couldn’t check the weather. And the storms that we get off of Lake Superior and our 14,000 acre lake are nasty. I couldn’t get to my e-mail accounts or my websites. I was pulling my hair out.
That’s when it became painfully obvious to me. We depend on the Internet like we depend on electricity in order to live. I wasn’t sure which was more important. I think that I’d rather be without electricity. I don’t need electricity to access the Internet. I have a whole-house backup generator system that runs on natural gas. So why do I need electricity? With natural gas prices being so low, I can probably generate my own electricity far cheaper than buying it from the power company. What hurt the most was that I was totally unaware that I had become so dependent on Internet access. That revelation hurt.
Time to Take Action!
I called CenturyLink, my Internet service provider, and tried to convince them that Internet bandwidth was exhausted in my neighborhood and they needed to do something about it. I told them that the families that had just returned from warm places were gaming online all day and that they were streaming video at night in order to watch movies on their computers. After all, they probably assumed that our little 1.5 Mbps Internet connection was just as fast as the 60 Mbps connection that they had in Phoenix, or Orlando, or L.A. or wherever they spent their winters. What do city people know about bandwidth? Right? I had it all figured out. I pointed out to the CenturyLink technician that I retired from a career as a network security analyst for a Fortune 100 company with a global network reaching into 225 countries. I spent 25 years analyzing the bits and bytes that choke a network. I asked them to throttle down the streaming video and audio media “on the wire” so the rest of us could have some bandwidth. They refused.
I’m sure that they thought that I was crazy. Even with my daily calls and detailed explanations of what was happening, they still didn’t get it.
CenturyLink promised to add more bandwidth at some future date by running more copper phone lines to our community. At times our Internet service would return to normal only to crap out again once the weekend arrived. One week, I was doing some work on the computer in the morning and the Internet light on the DSL modem turned from green to red. No service at all. That was strange. It was the middle of the week. The weekends were the worst. I called CenturyLink support once again to find out what the problem was this time. A small tornado had passed through Mercer during the night and damaged the local CenturyLink building that pushes Internet service out to us. They expected my service to return around 9:30 A.M. the following day. Again, I was painfully reminded of our life-threatening dependence on Internet access. It was depressing. How did this happen? Why was I not aware of this uncanny Internet dependence until service was taken away?
As I pointed out earlier, I HAVE back-up equipment for when the power goes out. Do I need a back-up plan for Internet service as well? If we depend on Internet access like we depend on electricity, maybe we should have a back-up system; like both a land line and a satellite connection.
Am I Alone? How Dependent Are You on Internet Service?
Have you ever lost Internet connectivity for any length of time? I can assure you that you don’t know what it really feels like to be “disconnected” from the rest of the world until it actually happens. After researching my own pathetic Internet service problems, I realized that the service denials that affected my access could happen to just about anyone. The fact of the matter is that the Internet access that we take for granted is in a very fragile state, and getting worse each day.
I think that, in the back of our minds, we all knew that once the Internet “went commercial” that this would happen someday. Corporations and companies use the Internet as if it belongs to them. Sure, they pay a nominal fee for the access; but the infrastructure of the Internet does not belong to them. For that matter, remember the days when government assured us that the information highway, as it was called then, would always be free and be available equally to everyone? That didn’t happen. Business stepped in and gobbled up the majority of the bandwidth. Remember when Al Gore, then Vice-President to Bill Clinton, said that he would push Internet services out to all rural communities of the USA? That didn’t happen either. Again, if creating the new infrastructure to make that happen is not profitable for business, they won’t do it.
So Who Ate the Internet!
Why is Internet service so fragile? What could possibly prevent you from having reliable Internet access? Take a look at the illustration below.
The answer to the question that I asked at the beginning of this post is, streaming video (primarily Netflix) ate the Internet. This diagram would not have looked the same last year at this time. Last year there would have been plenty of bandwidth available for browsing and other applications. Netflix talked about abandoning their use of ”snail mail” to send movies to subscribers, and replacing that business model by streaming 99% of subscriber videos over the Internet. They replaced last year’s chatter with action this year. What is truly amazing about this whole thing is that Netflix gobbled up the majority of Internet bandwidth as if it belonged to them. And no one said a word. They didn’t bother to check with me. Did they check with you?
I’m not opposed to Netflix or streaming video over the Internet. Well… let’s just say I’m neutral on this subject. I realize that many folks love the Netflix service. They like to download and watch movies on their computers or whatever it is that they do. And that’s OK. Each to his own. My concern is – where do we go from here? If one solitary business in the world is able to grab that much bandwidth, then what do we do about the next company that wants to do the same?
I should mention that Netflix didn’t have to build any new data centers to distribute its 3.14 petabytes of video around the world (can anyone define a petabyte?). They rent Amazon’s distributed data centers. In fact, Netflix is Amazon’s biggest customer for data services. And they didn’t have to build any network infrastructure to get movies into 36 million households around the world either. The Internet was already there. It’s free. So why not use it?
It’s a little more complex than what I stated above. But we don’t want to get too technical in this post. Suffice it to say that there’s this throttle application that all large networks use called QOS (quality of service). That application allows large networks to assign a specific priority (bandwidth) to specific applications and traffic on the network. That way, networks can guarantee that steaming video traffic will never push browsing traffic out of the equation. Because they have indicated, via the QOS application, that browsing will always get 5% (an estimate) of the total available bandwidth on the network.
A Tidbit of Background
In the 80’s the Internet used to be primarily for connecting educational institutions together; like colleges, universities, think tanks, libraries and such. The idea was to give everyone access to the world’s collected sources of knowledge. The Internet user base caught on and began developing applications and websites of their own; still for the primary purpose of sharing knowledge. In the 90’s blogging came on the scene and its primary purpose was, again, for the purpose of sharing new ideas and knowledge. Commercial use of the Internet did not really blossom until the early 2,000’s. In the past thirteen years, commercial use of the Internet is poised to displace every other category of Internet use (see the illustration above).
So What Do We Do Now!
But you say, there’s a simple solution to this whole issue. Just build more Internet capacity as you require it and the problem is solved. Right? And the obvious answer is, it’s not that easy. Internet infrastructure is very expensive; about $27,000/kilometer for cables that span oceans. The whole world is connected via Internet infrastructure. You can imagine what the total bill must be to lay new fiber optic cables across oceans. Take a look at the illustration below, which will give you a clearer picture of how continents are currently inter-connected via Internet infrastructure.
Why not use satellite and satellite dishes to transmit data between continents? Isn’t that easier and less expensive than laying cables on the ocean floor? No. Nothing carries data faster than fiber optic cable. Data on a fiber optic cable moves at the speed of light or 186,000 kps. There is no resistance on fiber optic cable. Data IS light on fiber optic cable.
Cables that cross the oceans in order to connect continents via the Internet have their own problems. We never hear about them. But there have been instances where entire continents have been totally disconnected from the rest of the world. In 2008, Europe was disconnected from Africa when a ship’s anchor cut through cables. Last March, the Egyptian Navy arrested three divers accused of purposely cutting a cable that provides data services to a billion people in Indonesia. Sharks are attracted to pulsating cables that carry Internet traffic across the oceans. How long do you think it will take for a terrorist organization to figure out that the best way to bring a country to its knees is to cut the cables that connect that country to the rest of the world?
The dotted yellow line in the illustration above maps out the plan for laying a new data cable on the ocean floor. If the plan is actually implemented, the new cable will be called the “freedom cable”. Freedom from what? Actually, freedom from Somalia where data cables sit on an active underwater volcano zone. And freedom from Singapore where no less than twelve data cables cross each other. If damaged, half the world could be disconnected from the other half.
Summing it all Up
The point of this discussion has been to answer the questions, who ate the Internet? Why is my computer getting slower? Why does my browser get slower and slower in the evening? Where is all the bandwidth going? And why am I so dependent on the Internet?
The illustration above tells the whole story. What will happen when commercial interests want more bandwidth in order to expand their reach into your home? I wish I had an answer to that question; but I don’t. I was incredulous when I first laid eyes on the illustration above. I still can’t believe that Netflix managed to acquire that much bandwidth without anyone expressing concern.
How fragile is your Internet service, your connection to the rest of the world which you take for granted? Very fragile. My personal opinion is that, barring unforeseen disasters, you will always have the necessary bandwidth that you need. The fact of the matter is that if you are not on the other end of that wire, commercial interests have lost you as a customer. You are no longer a consumer of goods and services. And big business is not about to let that happen, despite their bandwidth needs. You may not have the speed in your browser that you cherish so much. But you’ll have connectivity.
As far as being connected to the rest of the world? Experts say that you don’t really need to cut one of the data cables that span the oceans in order to disconnect Internet service to a particular continent. Just applying pressure to one of those cables is enough to disrupt service. Now that is a really, really, scary thought. Give that some thought and you’ll understand how fragile your Internet service really is.