Veni, vidi, cici - the online super-highway

Around 47 A.D, the then Roman Emperor, Claudius, invaded Britain. Without too much detail, this led to the Roman occupation of Britain, where, despite the misgivings of Monty Python, they did in fact do a great number of very good things, including build roads. Nearly 2,000 years later, we can draw parallels between this and the current online environment.

Quite simply, roads are an idealistic way of travelling from one place to the other, quickly and safely. Unfortunately, numerous factors can often prevent this from happening; your car might break down, get stuck in traffic or perhaps even be involved in an accident. And this can be applied to the internet, the idealistic principle being that it aims to deliver you directly to relevant information, quickly and safely.

The cliché here is that the internet is referred to in “old-school” terms as the “information super-highway”, but instead of cruising around in several tons of metal, you can travel the world without leaving your chair.

The original Roman roads of brick are now mostly gone, some forever, others now covered by motorways and bypasses. Furthermore, where there might have been a couple of carts every few miles two millennia ago, this has now been replaced by 33m vehicles. Again, the internet is no different, having originally had only a handful of regular users in comparison to the traffic volumes it experiences now. And this is the problem; the internet is visibly suffering from “traffic jams”, causing networks deliver slow services to users, and even grind to a halt completely. The best evidence for this lies with the hotly-debated BBC iPlayer. At the moment, this free service is finding itself increasingly in the cross-hairs of the ISP community.

Tiscali was the first to speak out, followed swiftly by Sky broadband, both voicing certain concerns about how internet “distribution costs are addressed”, but inadvertently aiming this directly at the BBC. With great reason too, for despite the other huge multi-platform sites online, iPlayer is an easy target with it’s open boasts of user interaction: more than 600,000 full shows are watched each day, with over 42m seen so far since it’s launch around Christmas 2007. On top of this, traffic volume is increasing 25% each month – resulting in a huge increase of downloading which is ultimately slowing internet speeds down. The ISP’s argument is that the BBC has to pay to broadcast it’s other media, so why should it get away free, online? With iPlayer’s increasing availability – such as through Apple’s iPhone or the Nintendo Wii – this will without doubt increase ISP traffic.

As mentioned, the BBC cannot be directly held responsible for the downtime in online delivery, but it certainly isn’t helping the matter, especially when reputations and profits of other large corporations are involved. The Government has made noises about upgrading the UK broadband network to the fibre-optic, speed-of-light standards found in countries such as Japan, but admits it doesn’t know how – or who – will foot the £15bn bill; the equivalent of the entire BBC budget for the next half decade.

One thing is certain however, and that is the speed of the internet is declining, due to a combination of content-growth and traffic volumes. And whilst this currently has an impact only when using specific sites, it could well be experienced across all internet networks in a relatively short space of time, affecting all internet services, from retail to search.

This problem may seem 'far away' but at the speed of evolution, it could become a real problem sooner than we think.