Is There A Bandwidth Shortage?

Movie and video streaming are Internet gas guzzlers. They account for a huge growing amount of traffic on the Internet, and service providers are struggling to keep up with demand. CNET Senior Writer Maggie Reardon talks to Steve Inskeep about whether consumers are facing a bandwidth shortage.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As Netflix and others encourage viewers to stream content, Internet providers are moving to charge more for the access. Their argument is this: The more you watch the more bandwidth you use and so the more you should pay.

To learn more, we spoke with Maggie Reardon, a senior writer at the technology news site CNET.

Ms. MAGGIE REARDON (Senior Writer, CNET): Bandwidth is your connection to the Internet. You know, I like to think of it in terms of a road system or a highway system. If you live off of a main road, a lot more cars can get on that road. But if you're probably out sort of in the sticks, you might have, you know, a smaller road. And the sense of bandwidth you might have a little less capacity.

INSKEEP: Well, let me get into that a little bit because obviously people are doing more and more things all the time online, and they're bandwidth intensive. Watching the movie must take up a lot of bandwidth compared to sending an email. Is there actually a shortage of bandwidth?

Ms. REARDON: The wireless industry would tell you yes. Actually, AT&T is saying that thats one of the key reasons why they want to buy T-Mobile. I wouldn't say though that we're necessarily in a shortage because there are certain times of day when lots of people are trying to access information. But then when that time passes, you don't have the network being used very much. So there's always this play that the service providers have to figure out, in terms of, you know, how much capacity do we build out. You don't overbuild because that's very expensive.

INSKEEP: At the same time, service providers seem to be charging more to stream large amounts of data. Is there a connection between bandwidth and those charges?

Ms. REARDON: Yes. They're trying to manage and control people's usage. And I'll use another analogy -electricity. If I didn't have to pay for electricity I'd probably run my air conditioner all day long. But that would really be expensive for me, so I don't do that. When you have all these unlimited data plans, people don't think about it. They don't have to because they're paying the same amount to whether they use 400 megabytes of data per month versus if they use three gigabytes of data per month.

INSKEEP: But what are the implications for companies that sell stuff over that bandwidth, like Netflix selling you movies which would take a lot of bandwidth?

Ms. REARDON: Netflix is concerned. And I think what they are most mostly concerned about is, you know, is this going to change behavior for consumers. What I think is actually kind of more interesting than a company like Netflix is a company like Apple or Google. They want you to put all of your data into their Cloud. So all my music, all my pictures, everything I do will have to be accessed from some data center someplace else. And Im going to need that Internet connection to get all my stuff.

I think that's actually more interesting and so...

INSKEEP: Oh yeah, because even if I don't change my behavior I'd be using a lot more bandwidth in that situation. It's already happening.

Ms. REARDON: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Is there a point at which this constant expansion of Internet services going to hit a roadblock that's actually difficult to deal with? Certainly hasn't really been one yet.

Ms. REARDON: Well, I think the really smart people who are building companies around this and doing research, they come up with ways to get around it. You know, obviously the first answer is you add more capacity. But then there are ways you can compress data. There's lots being done to sort of fit that video into a smaller cargo package, so it doesn't take as much room on the highway as its being transported. So there are lots of things that can be done.

So honestly, I'm not that worried about it. It's not the end yet. It's just the beginning.

INSKEEP: Maggie Reardon is a senior writer at CNET. Thanks very much

Ms. REARDON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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