The Backbone of the Internet is Maxing Out

Illustration for article titled The Backbone of the Internet is Maxing Out

Earlier this week, we heard reports that we’re on the verge of running out of internet, specifically, out of IPv4 addresses. Now, it seems, we may be hitting another, more serious internet wall: The cables.

That’s right. The tubes themselves can’t spit out our data much faster.

The fiber-optic cables that transmit the internet’s data and direct its traffic have a power limit. For decades, researchers have been amplifying the signal passed through these cables to keep up with growing internet traffic. But those tricks won’t work forever: If you up the power beyond a certain point, the fibers becomes light-saturated and the signal degrades. And we’re very close to reaching that capacity limit, according to researchers who convened at a Royal Society meeting in London this week to discuss the matter.

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“You can’t get an infinite amount of capacity in a fibre,” Andrew Ellis at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, told New Scientist. Indeed, French communications specialist René-Jean Essiambre presented data suggesting that the current optical fiber limit, around 100 terabits per second worth of data, could be reached within the next five years. Unsurprisingly, the looming capacity crunch is caused by the fast growth of online media consumption through the likes of Netflix and YouTube.

Does this mark the beginning of an internet apocalypse? A slow, miserable slide back into the barbaric days of dial up speeds? Hopefully not. Physicists and computer scientists are already hot on the problem. One possible solution is to blast more power through the tubes— signal distortion be damned!—and figure out how to clean the mess up at the other end. Engineers are also investigating new fibers that contain multiple cores capable of transmitting much larger amounts of data.

Fingers crossed somebody figures this one out. Personally, I might take a zombie horde over the human beings that a world with internet rationing would create. [New Scientist]

Top image: Shutterstock / BrAt82

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Follow Maddie on Twitter or contact her at maddie.stone@gizmodo.com

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DISCUSSION

Unfortunately, it’s the old “if you build it, they will come” problem. Staying with the highway analogy, how many times have you seen big, wide highways and interchanges being built in the middle of nowhere only to find a couple of years later when the highway is done, it’s already overloaded because businesses flock to the area because of the new highway. What was once an empty field now has malls, restaurants stores, strip centers, subdivisions, apartments, etc. I can think of one example near me that has been under construction for the last 20 years because every time they rebuild and widen the highway, more and more business move in and it’s obsolete before it’s even finished. It’s been under construction now for over 20 years.

If you create more bandwidth capacity, high bandwidth users like Netflix (not to single them out, there are more) will start transmitting more and more stuff at higher and higher resolutions in order to use that extra capacity.