Expert says 'Net traffic growing faster than ever

Contrary to reports from analysts and other industry pundits, the Internet is not shrinking - traffic actually grew fourfold over the past year, according to one of the Internet's "fathers."

According to a study conducted by Lawrence Roberts, founder, chairman and chief technology officer of Caspian Networks, Internet traffic quadrupled between April 2000 and April 2001. As a designer and developer of ARPANET, the computer packet network that either evolved into or merely contributed to the creation of the modern Internet, Roberts is considered by many to be a "father" of the Internet.

Roberts' findings, based on data culled from the backbone trunks of the top 19 ISPs, run counter to the assertions of many industry observers, who link the slowdown in service provider capital expenditures and resultant falloff in equipment sales to slowing growth of Internet traffic.

"All of this is a presumption, an assumption," Roberts says of the linkage between Internet traffic and the reduction in capex and equipment sales. "The Internet has been growing faster than ever."

One research firm that made such a connection, RHK, said the fourfold growth was in capacity, not in traffic. The firm also questioned the Roberts study methodology.

"I think a 4x growth in capacity did happen, because a lot of these carriers upgraded from an OC-48 to an OC-192 in the same timeframe," says Muyyad Al-Chalabi, director of core and edge routing and switching research at RHK. "The methodology counts the number of hops, so if a packet gets over three or four hops that's counted three or four times over again."

RHK contends that traffic growth slowed to 90 per cent from 128 per cent in the past year.

One could also question Roberts' motives with this study. Even though the study carries some measure of credibility due to Roberts' status as an Internet pioneer, he now heads a young company trying to sell equipment for the core of the Internet.

In any event, Roberts claims his data shows that core Internet traffic has been doubling every six months, much faster than the average 2.8 times per year since 1997. He also says his data is the first to track Internet traffic since the National Science Foundation ceased this practice in 1996.

Traffic growth is being fueled by corporations, which use the Internet as a cheaper inter- and intracompany communications alternative than private networks. Corporate traffic accounts for 80 per cent of all of the Internet's traffic, Roberts says.

The dot-coms - the failure of which may have led many to believe that Internet traffic growth would slow considerably - only accounted for 5 per cent of the Internet's traffic, Roberts says. Personal traffic such as gaming and chatting is growing, but crimped by the slow rollout of broadband services, he says.

In addition to incorrectly linking Internet traffic to reduced capex and equipment sales, industry observers are also confusing the fiber/bandwidth/capacity glut issue with a decrease in traffic growth, Roberts says. Rather, service providers are now deploying OC-192 equipment they bought last year for testing purposes to accommodate increased traffic, he says.

"Equipment purchases have taken a momentary lull because of capital problems," not because of a reduction in traffic growth, Roberts says.

Indeed, if the Internet continues to grow by a factor of four each year, network buildouts will need to pick up again soon, he says. According to Roberts, equipment sales could reach US$100 billion by 2010 if the Internet continues to grow at the pace his study claims it is.

He also says IP service revenue will exceed voice revenue in two to three years, provided prices come down and revenue grows by a factor of two. Many industry watchers have pegged the slowdown in sales of IP routers for the Internet on service providers' inability to price data services to both create demand and make a profit.

Roberts and his team polled the network topologies, trunk ports, speeds and utilization, and traffic of the 19 ISPs, sampling traffic in April and October 2000, and in April 2001. He declined to identify the ISPs, but said the top four account for 50 per cent of the Internet's traffic.

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