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Exaflood 2: Electronic Bugaboo – Again With the Internet Brownout Theory

Phillip Dampier April 30, 2009 Broadband "Shortage", Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't 13 Comments

StoptheCap! reader Tim wrote this morning to alert us that Fox News had picked up a story from the Sunday Times of London warning of the great Internet brownout about to afflict us all.  It turns out our old friends at Nemertes Research have trotted out another sensationalist study (right on cue after a month of nonsense about it from Time Warner Cable) predicting our online demise from too many users.

But is it any good?

astroturf1The original article sure wasn’t.  John Harlow, who needed reporting assistance from Adam Lewitt, couldn’t be bothered.  Lazy reporters who reprint sensationalistic theories as fact without ever bothering to ask any questions about the source or challenging the theories, is a hallmark of sloppy, never break a sweat journalism.  Even Ted Ritter, quoted in the story, called the journalism sensationalistic and said the reporter “took great liberty with my quotes,” and he’s the guy pushing the theory!

I keep asking, “where’s the media” on so many issues that deserve more than a slapdash reprint of the cheat sheet on the study, toss in a few quotes and call it a day.  But then I realized in this day and age, we are the media.

So I plodded my way through the report.  It’s the same alarmist stuff as the last one, and the one before that.

They said it in 2007 and the only scurrying that came after it was from Nemertes’ clients running to Kinkos to make copies and get them into the hands of legislators to justify whatever political agenda they were selling that season (no to net neutrality, yes to bandwidth caps, yes to government funding or tax credits for private broadband, etc.)

And that is exactly the problem.

Nemertes’ findings are like magic sprinkles on top of a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone.  They work with every flavor to justify whatever you want.

On all such matters, the only fact you have to remember is to “follow the money.”  Who pays for this research?

Ted Ritter from Nemertes answers:

Our research is funded by our clients: Vendors, service providers and fortune 500 enterprise.

And the results of this research are celebrated by all of the above:   Equipment suppliers love it because they can trumpet the scary findings on their “upgrade now” brochures. ISPs love it because they can claim they have to cap and tier customers in order to buy equipment to combat the “exaflood.” Proponents of government funding for the Internet love it because it hints major funding to subdue the crisis might be needed.

Without those supporters, this study would never have been done in the first place.  Additionally, Nemertes appears to have an additional revenue stream from licensing the results of the study to interested clients, who wouldn’t bother unless they had a vested interest in trumpeting the findings.

In other words, this is a classic case of “conflict of interest.”  But if you order in the next 20 minutes, you also get these extra benefits:

Since we all know the results are made public, and media availabilities are prominently mentioned on the website, a paying client has the bonus of a seemingly independent third party who will be available to discuss the findings and results.  That’s a quick path to media coverage, the more sensational the better.

Since it’s Nemertes saying it, that keeps the clients’ hands clean when they license a purportedly independent report and mention it prominently when delving into public policy lobbying, public relations, and marketing strategies.

It’s also unsurprising that Nemertes stays out of specific public policy recommendations, because that is exactly what clients want. They’ll provide their own spin as they see fit, just as happened in 2007 and will no doubt happen again.  Why pay for a study that makes a public policy conclusion you oppose?

It’s all very neat and tidy, especially when Mr. Ritter complains that the media was sensationalizing the results.  I’m sure his clients think exactly the opposite.  But then sensationalism and spin follows Nemertes’ report wherever it appears. It drew panic headlines in 2007, was dredged up again by a few marketing people to justify broadband usage caps in 2008, and largely the exact same panicky coverage is appearing now, coincidentally in the same month Time Warner used Nemertes’ theories to justify their Internet rationing effort.

One local Rochester television newscast even suggested a router failure responsible for a Time Warner service outage this past weekend might have been the result of an Internet “brownout.”  That was Baskin-Robbins Flavor #7, “Very Berry Strawberry.”  See, it does work for everything!

The Sunday Times doesn’t have time to check the facts with anyone else, and there are many others who have a different view on this.  Andrew Odlyzko is a professor of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota, and has been tracking Internet growth since 2001:

Nemertes Research has an updated version of their study from last year, and continues to predict a collision between demand and supply, unless dramatic increases in investment are made. The basic, and highly debatable, assumption behind their work, though, is that traffic is growing at 100% per year or more, and will continue to do so for the next half a dozen years. So far there is little evidence of that, though.

Nemertes waves away Odlyzko by claiming that their discrepancy in data with his comes from the ‘secret Internet’ private backbones. Of course, that data Odlyzko can’t get from them is the same data Nemertes cannot get from them either. So we are left with an assertion without raw data.

The creepy part of all of this is, I could use Nemertes’ study to help the cause on StoptheCap! Nemertes says nothing about the need for usage caps and limits — it instead suggests that insufficient infrastructure spending will cause the Internet to brown out causing loss of innovation, jobs, and all the rest.  So I could use Nemertes to justify why cable companies have a basic responsibility to stop cutting infrastructure spending and start increasing it, instead of capping people to ration the net.

But I won’t, because I have integrity.  I realize that no report is worth mentioning as factual and accurate without the underlying assurance of its independence and lack of bias.  As I wrote Mr. Ritter:

If you want to do reports for clients who subscribe to your service, then send them the results and don’t make them public. Let the clients make the report public, because they are effectively paying for it. It prevents the accusation you are astroturfing on their behalf by insulating their involvement and investment in the findings.

Otherwise, a list of all supporting clients by name, in addition to whether they have been licensed to use the material, absolutely must be added to the bottom of your findings, or those findings are rightfully dismissed out of hand as bought and paid for.

Alternatively, if you are doing this in the public interest, do not accept funding from those with a vested interest in the findings, and do not license their use by anyone. Let people read them on your site, in full and in context, not after some marketing group has massaged the relevant points for their latest strategy.

Ultimately, I think Nemertes basic conclusion that the Internet is growing, and fast, is borne out by reality — just not at the panic stricken pace they suggest.  I also think that just like every other technological challenge we have faced, innovation will bring solutions to problems we fear and panic about today, but aren’t that big of a deal tomorrow.

The short answer continues to be, upgrade the network.  The bad answers include another effort by some of those that we’re likely to discover paying for Nemertes’ studies to advocate supersizing profits through reduction in competition, installing artificial usage limits to retard the growth curve, and trying to legislate protectionism for incumbent providers.

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Ted Ritter
12 years ago

Since you read the report you recognize that we are very clear that we are modeling possible Internet demand and supply. We model because there is no complete data source – service providers do not share their capacity and demand numbers. We are also very clear in the report that there is not a “secret” Internet as you suggest, rather an increasing volume of Internet traffic is being carried by content delivery networks; content that doesn’t pass through public peering points. In terms of funding let me expand on our position. Our model is we have a base of clients… Read more »

David
David
12 years ago
Reply to  Ted Ritter

Hmmm…. yet you don’t take into account working models in Europe and Asia that have FASTER speeds, and NO CAPS, why aren’t they facing this “exaflood” crisis? They have more people wired with what we consider “premium” connections, if there were no working systems that provided these services why does TW continue to make these claims. Why don’t you only accept funding made to you through government grants which won’t lead to suspicion of your bias? Why should we trust a company that is being supported by those that have a vested interest in a study? Where is the objectivity?… Read more »

Oscar@SA
12 years ago
Reply to  Ted Ritter

Can you say BBB??? People in .se can get 100/100 for just a few extra dollars than the $50.00 I give TW WITH NO CAP…. 43% are on ADSL… sure, do they live out in the middle of nowhere or in an area nobody wants to expand to *ahem* TW *ahem*? Or are they in a major city such as those in your “proposed” test areas? I’m sure you love taking business away from Level 3 Communications with your MPLS implementation. <– I know this 1st hand.. I have placed over 50 cancellation requests to Level3 so we can implement… Read more »

Frank
Frank
12 years ago

I agree with David. It just a paid report that slants to who is funding them.

jr
jr
12 years ago

Corporate whores being corporate whores

Uncle Ken
Uncle Ken
12 years ago

In theory a brown out or a black out is possible But not here in the United States, Canada, South America and Mexico because we are all physically joined. Any talk of brown outs between ISP’s here is a manufactured lie from people like TWC, ATT, Comcast and others. But a problem may occur between the US and the other side of the world. I do not think Asia, the UK, Europe, and China; too many to list would like that. We are a very good customer for them to loose and im sure we feel the same. Sure the… Read more »

Arstal
Arstal
12 years ago

And now Drudge and Fox News have fallen for it.

Uncle Ken
Uncle Ken
12 years ago

I always thought of FOX as another mouth peice for TW. Anyway it seems all the media is loosing intrest on the subject. The reason you do not see anything new anymore. Cap coverage came and went. That don’t help.

Oscar@SA
12 years ago
Reply to  Uncle Ken

The s”T”Wine flu is taking over everything at the moment..

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

Brownout? Don’t be absurd. There are so many companies over in the USA that are going IPTV, that if “brownouts” were possible, they would be sweating bullets because the first “brownout” would be the nail in the coffin. Show me some independent unbiased research that this could happen and I might take the issue more seriously but to say it is so and being paid by the same industry shills is just ridiculous in the extreme. Lastly, I have always known that these businesses would turn you upside down and shake you until you don’t have a dime left. AT&T… Read more »

Lummox JR
Lummox JR
12 years ago

The risk of a brownout does not exist, period. It might at some unspecified point in the future, but if that was any kind of near reality (like within the next few years) then companies like Amazon and Google would be leveraging unbelievable pressure to upgrade the Internet backbone. They would be in a state of near-panic; they are not. Furthermore, such an impending crisis would also be reflected in the SEC filings of companies like Time-Warner, which would surely rush to upgrade their networks to compensate; they are not. There is no basis on which to suggest we are… Read more »

Michael Chaney
12 years ago
Reply to  Lummox JR

I completely agree….. Mr. Ritter, to quote Tom Cruise, “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” Show me ONE company that is scrambling to increase spending on their infrastructure as a direct result of this scenario. Show me ONE company that is even mentioning your scenario to their investors. I just don’t believe you. Show me the financial numbers to back up your claim.

austin#7889
austin#7889
12 years ago

What?? brownout? Are they assuming they can’t no longer improve the technology? don’t we have DOSCIS 3.0 now? that is just 3.0, some time later we will have 4.0, which will be much better, right? And later we will have DOSCIS 5.0 or perhaps XYZ 1.0.

If one pipe is not enough and you can’t find bigger pipe, use two.
If demand doubles, double the supply as well.

TWC claims they are using the latest technology, but shame on them, they are NOT!

With the cap, the only thing that will be brown-out is my wallet!

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