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Experts Fear UK Electricity and Fibre Optic Capacity Shortage to Hit Internet

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015 (7:25 pm) - Score 1,926
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At least once every year, for the past decade or more, somebody somewhere has warned about an impending Internet “capacity crunch” or “crash” and today we have a new scare story. The crux of the problem is this, allegedly we’re going to run out of fibre optic capacity and electricity supplies might also struggle to keep pace with demand.

Essentially several experts, such as Ex-BT researcher Prof Andrew Ellis of the Aston University Optical Communications department and Andrew Lord, Head of Optical Access at BT, have warned that within around 8 years the capacity of existing fibre optic cables will have been all filled up.

Andrew Ellis said:

Since we had the first modem, the capacity people have been able to achieve has been growing exponentially, doubling every two years. We can’t get much more capacity in one fibre, and there have been signs of slowing since 2010.

We are starting to reach the point in the research lab where we can’t get any more data into a single optical fibre. The intensity is the same as if you were standing right up against the sun. The deployment to market is about six to eight years behind the research lab – so within eight years that will be it, we can’t get any more data in.”

On top of that there’s a prediction that electricity supplies will also become a problem and that Internet demand, which is currently predicted by some to account for between 8% to 16% of Britain’s power, could consume the nation’s entire power supply by approximately 2035.

Andrew Ellis said:

That is quite a huge problem. If we have multiple fibres to keep up, we are going to run out of energy in about 15 years.

Wonderful news then, the Internet is doomed and the warnings are naturally being stoked up in some of today’s newspapers (here and here). Apparently the concerns are due to be discussed on 11th May 2015, at the annual Royal Society Conference, where it’s been suggested that future broadband consumers may face higher prices and possibly a return to capped usage allowances.

Andrew Lord added:

It’s the first time we have had to worry about optical fibres actually filling up. If we don’t fix this then in 10 years’ time the internet could have to cost more.”

Now let us return back down to earth. Firstly, it’s unclear precisely how some of these estimates have been calculated and or whether they account for natural adaption and upgrade. Indeed Mr Lord’s suggestion that the Internet could “cost more” is hardly a shock, especially with prices for line rental and or broadband already rising by around double the level of inflation year-on-year (partly to help ISPs keep pace with demand). Consumers also tend to pay more for faster connections in general.

At the same time it’s true that even fibre optic cables, which have shown some amazing speed improvements through recent research (examples here, here and here), will eventually reach their limits, but then you can always build more cables. Granted this is expensive, although that’s always been true and one way or another the major infrastructure providers will have to adapt.

The other problem with looking too far ahead into the future is that it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what new inventions might surface and how they will impact society or indeed how people themselves may change. Technology moves so fast that the horizon is always shifting forward.

On the other hand there is an understandable justification for some of the concerns, but right now it’s hard to be sure what will happen and that’s always been the case since long before broadband, back when dialup was king. In the meantime new power stations and cables will be built, while prices will rise, just as they’ve always done before.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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12 Responses
  1. Avatar dave

    fear mongering. routers, computers and tablets are using less and less power, there’s no way they will be using 8-16% of our power. As for capacity, there is always big improvements in fibre bandwidth improvements, also undersea fibre optic cables are laid fairly often by the private sector. Looks like he is just trying to justify his job position.

    • Avatar Astroturfer

      The Shannon limit applies regardless of the media.

      Gamers would I’m sure be fascinated to know that their 1+kW PSU machines are using less and less power. I’m sure operators would be delighted to know that they are using less electricity.

      You are confusing efficiency with overall consumption. We certainly have more processing power per watt but also have a lot more processing to do. The processing requirements of routers and transmission equipment have increased phenomenally, as have the number of them in use.

      That or you think carriers are lying when they discuss the need to upgrade their power and environmental systems to deliver additional wattage in data centres and to disperse the additional heat generated.

    • Avatar Ken

      How can we run out of Bandwidth? Maybe if Openreach didn’t use FTTC then we would not have this ISSUE!These cabs throttle potential TB fibre connections due to the way the fibre is connected to DSLAM either 1G or 10Gb. a FTTC cab can take 5Kwh of POWER and or or 2W a line!
      Most cabs cost around 2-25K to be connected to the grid for a year! there are going to be 30,000 cabs… why don’t Openreach just use Pure fibre? its cheaper to run, protect, manage, operate bandwidth, scale bandwidth, extremely resilient.. and most of ALL ITS COST EFFECTIVE! i have had 30Plus engineers in the last 3 years due to a UG connection my D-side issue was the cable was corroded armoured and less than 50years, 40 years, 30 years. in the ground!Fibre is so cheap on its STUPID not to deploy it!to run a 20pair UG can take one day to fish, and 3 days to complete the work with ground works for just 40meters. a 20pair is about a inch or so thick. where as blown fibre in a 13mm armored tube can carry a fibre wire less than 8mm and that fibre line can carry 7-13tubes with a total fibre capacity of 100fibres*! one fibre aggregation nodes can supply even some of the biggest villages and the best thing is once its laid it future proof and uses tiny amounts of electric!

    • Avatar FibreFred

      FTTP is cheaper to deploy than FTTC?

      You heard it here first folks!

      🙂 😀 🙂

    • Avatar TheFacts

      ‘a FTTC cab can take 5Kwh of POWER’ Should be cosy by them in winter. Closer to 500W.

    • Avatar John Clyde

      A new submarine cable has NOT be deployed in over 10 years, especially around the UK

    • Actually there have been several new-ish links created or redirected to benefit parts of the UK, mostly around reviving older / redundant fibre to help cater for places like the Shetland Islands and the Isle of Scilly. A number of new subsea fibre optic link projects are also underway that will pass and link into the UK over the next few years.

      In other cases though it’s simply been more cost effective to upgrade what already exists, but that doesn’t stop new ones being built in the future and we have to expect that they will. Lest we not forget the large subsea project that BT is doing, although that’s mostly focused on west Scotland.

  2. Avatar TheFacts

    Details at https://royalsociety.org/events/2015/05/communication-networks/

    This meeting will combine research in cutting edge information theory adapted to account for the nonlinear dynamics of optical systems, radical network architectures grounded in mathematics to enhance utilisation of the finite capacity, advanced material science to provide new tools and uniquely economic analysis to scope the urgency of the issues.

    This event is intended for researchers in relevant fields and is free to attend.

  3. Avatar Sledgehammer

    A far bigger danger to a likely electricity shortage is the building of new homes. The ammount of power, gas, water and a internet connection involved need far more thought put into the possible outcome?

  4. Avatar TTT

    i, too, am sceptical about running out of energy. Devices (processors in particular) are becoming more efficient, and most electronic devices (as opposed to your kettle) are low-power, and thus suitable for being powered by alternative energy, such as solar.

    Congestion on the network however is nothing new, so I find it more plausible to believe that we will experience a network running at capacity very soon.
    One of our clients dials in from California to Maidenhead, and often complains about difficulties connecting, as direct result of packet loss on Level 3’s cross-atlantic sea floor fibre. Level 3 so far has just been shrugging its shoulders, quoting 10s of thousands of dollars for an assured rate connection.

    I don’t think the way end users (consumers in particular) will make a difference to how congested the back haul network is.
    I do agree that pure fibre would be a better and cheaper alternative to FTTC (as shown by Verizon FIOS and AT&T U-Verse in the US), but from a commercial point of view, fibre limits opportunities for charging more for better packages, and is therefore a shareholders’ nightmare.

  5. Avatar cyclope

    Most cabs cost around 2-25K to be connected to the grid for a year! Where did you get those figures from? there’s no way that those cabs use a lot of electricity as most of the internal components inc Dslam run at 24volts i bet each cab probably consumes around £400 per yr of eclectic

  6. Avatar Chris Evans

    Don’t quite understand this; the amount of data which you can fit down a fibre optic cable providing it’s to spec is determined by how fast you can flash a light down it, so surely it’s the equipment on either end that’s the limitation? The more flashes it can understandably send down a cable the more data will be transferred as a result.

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