As our appetite for data increases, the buck has to stop somewhere...
Can the networks cope as our data consumption continues to rise, or will customers foot the bill?
Over the last five years our consumption of data has sky rocketed, and many of us are paying the price for it as we regularly exceed our download limits, incurring costly charges for the privilege.
Streaming catch-up TV, watching high-definition (HD) movies, listening to the radio via our internet connection, our addiction to World of Warcraft, announcing our lunch choices on social networking sites, and the viral YouTube videos we just have to watch.
Research has shown that network traffic - the amount we are using the internet - has increased seven-fold in the UK over the past five years to an average of 17GB of data per month, the equivalent of downloading 11 films or streaming 12 hours of BBC iPlayer HD. For some providers, this figure is as much as 40GB per month.
What has changed?
Any content, any time - not that long ago our data was limited by the content and applications that were available to us. Now the rise of the social networking giants like Facebook, the video streaming titan YouTube and on-demand movie providers, such as Netflix, have pushed heavy data consumption into the mainstream.
In 2011 alone, YouTube had more than a trillion views which is the equivalent of 140 views of this rather theatrical football ref for every single person on Earth. It is predicted that by 2015 video traffic - already accounting for 53% of all uploads and downloads - will more than quadruple, accounting for two-thirds of online traffic.
Unlimited packages - We have also been offered limitless tariffs allowing us - fair usage policies aside - to download as much as we like with no fear of excess charges, and the rise of comparison tools such as the Broadbandchoices.co.uk postcode checker give people the best choice of unlimited broadband deals available in their area.
Cloud computing - In addition, we are increasingly being encouraged to store and manage all of our data in remote online locations and access remote software applications - otherwise known as cloud computing. While this allows for faster performance and more flexibility as you can access your files from any computer not just the one on which it is stored, it also means increased volume of traffic as everything you do on your computer requires data transfer and the use of your data allowance.
Connection speeds - The increase in our data consumption has gone hand-in-hand with the increase in broadband speeds available. If nothing else, slow connection speeds eliminate the casual browser. Only those who are really committed will be willing to wait more than 5 seconds for a video clip of a dog that may or may not be stuck in a bucket to load.
Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com) has stated that customers on its 10Mb package use around 19GB data each month whereas those using its 100Mb broadband gobble up an enormous 130GB of data in the same timeframe. However, it's likely that it is the superfast connection speed that attracts the highest downloaders rather than being the cause of the high downloading.
Mobile devices - we are no longer limited to our study-based fixed computer, our laptops and tablets and Wi-Fi connections allow us to access the web any time, from the kitchen, in front of the TV or even in the bath (just don't drop it).
Can providers cope with our data consumption?
Not if recent weeks have been any indication. In the past few months several broadband providers have had problems with their service which they have attributed to greater levels of demand from existing customers.
Since February, Sky broadband (www.Sky.com) customers in 34 areas of the UK have been suffering from broadband connection issues that are unlikely to be resolved until April. Sky says: "This is a result of Sky having to add more capacity into its local network infrastructure to meet the growing demand being placed on the network through high volumes of new customers and greater levels of demand from existing customers."
Similarly, BE broadband (www.Bethere.co.uk) revealed that problems with its service in February were due to its customer's increasing demand for video streaming services like BBC iPlayer, which pushed BE's network to the limits of its capacity.
Customers will pay the price for increasing data appetites
If our data consumption continues to rise so dramatically, and it's almost inconceivable that this won't be the case, what will be the result?
Higher charges for unlimited broadband packages - Customers will increasingly need to move on to unlimited tariffs in order to get the download allowances they need to accommodate their usage - but providers will be unable to deliver the capacity that is being demanded without developing their networks. This will come at a cost to the provider which will inevitably be passed on to the customer in the form of much higher charges for unlimited broadband packages.
An end to unlimited broadband deals - Industry analysts say that the continual rise in data usage might spell the end for unlimited broadband deals. Customers will then be restricted to capped allowances and face rising charges for going over their limits.
Customers forced to cut data consumption or risk disconnection - Customers who can't afford to pay a premium for unlimited broadband will have to be much more restrained in their usage or risk unexpected charges for exceeding data limits, or may even be disconnected by their provider.
Slower connections + increased latency = a frustrating web experience - Alternatively, the demand placed on the network continues to increase with no accompanying network investment. Either providers will be forced to artificially throttle their customer's connections just to maintain some level of connectivity, or, the level of congestion will cause latency to increase and connections to get slower and slower making for an increasingly frustrating web experience.
Whatever the result, it's not looking good for the customer.
Is there a solution?
The providers who have already experienced streaming issues as a result of their networks reaching saturation point are now on catch up, firstly to shore up their bandwidth by peering with fellow networks, and secondly increasing the longer-term capacity of their links.
The big boys, such as Virgin Media and BT (www.BT.com), are already investing in new technologies to increase the capacity of broadband access networks. However, as future demand can only be speculated on, whether this will meet customer requirements is unknown.
In the US - where technology trends often start prior to UK adoption - AT&T, the second largest wireless internet service provider (ISP) has recently announced plans to start slowing the data speeds of customers with unlimited mobile broadband plans as they reach a set limit.
Given that the vast majority of our data usage still takes place via fixed broadband lines and not on mobile broadband, how long will it be before similar tactics are employed by fixed line broadband providers in the UK as a way keeping our usage within manageable limits?