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

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015 (7:25 pm) - Score 1,990

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.

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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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