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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gridlock on the Internet? It Could Happen Soon

LONDON -- The huge growth in the number of computers hooked up to the Internet computer network could soon lead to the cyberspace equivalent of gridlock, industry experts say.

Traffic generated by the Internet's 20 million users worldwide is now estimated at more than 30 terabytes of information each month -- the equivalent of 30 million 700-page novels -- and the network is feeling the strain.

Charles Stancomb of SRI International says the problem could reach a critical point in three to five years unless a solution is found.

"It won't come upon us suddenly like a brick wall, but there will be an ever more noticeable diminution of network speed," Stancomb said.

According to Vinton Cerf, labelled by some the "father of the Internet" and now a senior vice-president at U.S. phone company MCI Communications Corp., network congestion has now reached a "dangerous measure."

Cerf, quoted by the magazine Communications Week International at the annual meeting of The Internet Society in Honolulu this month, said this was all the more worrying because the Internet was still "modest in capacity."

Developed in 1969 as a way for U.S. Defense Department scientists to swap results between laboratories, the Internet grew haphazardly across public phone lines in the 1970s and 1980s with the explosive growth of the personal computer.

Despite recently-added fiber-optic trunk lines, some users are already complaining that a slowdown in network speed has meant it is taking significantly longer to access Internet pages and download information.

Like Cerf, Stancomb said that the addition of on-line sites that include video, audio and high-quality graphics was only adding to the congestion. Fifty spoken words, or a bare three seconds of video, take up the same amount of bytes as a 700-page novel.

Some of the operators of trunk-lines, such as U.S.-based Sprint Corp., are already upgrading their Internet links to add greater capacity, particularly in the U.S. market where Internet use is greatest.

But some net-watchers fear a long-term solution may be found in making users pay for the Internet -- a resource that, apart from the cost of a local phone call and any premium services used -- is in itself free.

"The big issue among telecoms operators is that Internet traffic could create bottlenecks [on their networks]. That is usually followed by the argument for a two-tier Internet," said John Lilley, an analyst at Dataquest.

Such a system -- under which some users pay a fee to guarantee a certain standard of network access -- would run in the face of the current egalitarian culture of the Internet.