A new research study warns that the Internet could stagger under the weight of the digital media clogging its pipes.
The study, conducted by Nemertes Research and distributed by the not-for-profit Internet Innovation Alliance, suggests that consumer and corporate Internet usage could outstrip network capacity both in North America and worldwide in a little more than two years.
"This groundbreaking analysis identifies a critical issue facing the Internet -- that we must take the necessary steps to build out network capacity or potentially face Internet gridlock that could wreak havoc on Internet services," Alliance co-chairman Larry Irving said in a statement. "The Nemertes study is evidence the 'exaflood' is coming."
The term 'Exaflood' was coined by Bret Swanson, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and contributing editor at the Gilder Technology Report, in a January 2007 article for the Wall Street Journal.
It comes from the term "exabyte," or 1.074 billion gigabytes. So, an exaflood refers to what Irving called "the looming data deluge" to be created by online video and digital media yet to be invented.
The actual study was less alarmist. In fact, the study makes clear that while the Internet could face a crisis in access capacity around the year 2010, researchers don't believe that it will ever break because of its redundant and self-protecting architecture.
But users could experience erratic performance, especially when downloading files over a saturated broadband link, it found.
According to Nemertes, the financial investment required to bridge the gap between demand and capacity ranges from $42 billion to $55 billion in the U.S., primarily to be spent on broadband access capacity. Required investment globally is estimated at $137 billion, also primarily on broadband.
Yet the exaflood concept -- and this report -- could be a stalking horse for the interests of the telecom industry.
In his exaflood piece, Swanson argued that network neutrality would stifle digital innovation. Swanson wrote that neutrality, by guaranteeing a negative rate of return on infrastructure investments, would remove incentives for bandwidth providers to build the capacity necessary to keep up with the YouTubes of the future.
Many connectivity providers want to maintain their ability to throttle user activity when necessary and to offer a more expensive tier of service to high-bandwidth content providers like YouTube and BitTorrent.
But proponents of net neutrality, notably Amazon and Google, claimed that without neutrality, the Internet will be dominated by a handful of powerful telephone and cable company gatekeepers who will have the ability to decide which sites work best based on who pays the most.
SaveTheInternet.com, an industry coalition focused on promoting net neutrality, criticized the Nemertes report as "Astroturfing" -- a public relations effort producing a phony grassroots campaign.
Timothy Karr, campaign director for Free Press and the SaveTheInternet.com Coalition, pointed out that the Internet Innovation Alliance is funded by telcos and connectivity providers. Its membership roster includes AT&T, Nortel, Level3 and Alcatel Lucent.
The Alliance also was co-founded by Irving and Bruce Mehlman. Mehlman is a co-founder of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, a self-described bipartisan public affairs consulting firm that does not provide a list of clients. Irving, meanwhile, is president and CEO of Irving Information Group, described in the research press release as a consulting firm providing strategic advice and assistance to international telecommunications and technology companies.
"There's always an issue when a research group receives funding from phone companies and then creates research that's very much in line with their strategic and policy objectives," Karr told InternetNews.com.
SaveTheInternet.com founding members include Craig Newmark of craigslist; Gun Owners of America; Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig; and the Free Press, an organization that advocates in policymaking about media. According to Karr, its financial backers include the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute.
In a response to a blog post by Karr criticizing the Nemertes research, the research group disputed the suggestion that the research may have been skewed by its clients.
According to a fact sheet on the study provided by Nemertes, "Our model is that we have a base of clients who subscribe to our research and advisory services. Our clients include users, makers of, and investors in, technology."
IIA representatives declined to comment on whether the organization had funded the study directly.
Countered Karr, "These research companies are business and they know if they appeal to corporate interest, they're bound to get money."
In any case, Irving and Mehlman have been sounding the exaflood alarm for quite a while, writing op-ed pieces for a number of outlets months in advance of the Nemertes report. Neither were available for interviews today.
Karr, meanwhile, denied that SaveTheInternet.com's efforts to promote net neutrality furthers the interests of large Internet companies like Google and Yahoo.
"The 16 million activists who wrote into the legislature aren't doing it to support Google, but because they believe these telcos should not be able to decide where we can go on the Internet," Karr said. "It's the most important communication tool of the century, and we can't let corporations ultimately decide its fate."
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.