Forget 24/7 availability: By 2013, telecommunications operators will deliver at least 48 hours of Internet connectivity to their customers, every day of the week, according to a study by Cisco Systems.
To reach that figure, Cisco added up the time it expects customers to spend in front of each of their screens -- PCs, smartphones and Internet-enabled TVs -- as well as the time unattended PCs spend on network-oriented background tasks such as online backups, peer-to-peer downloads or software updates.
We are already using 36 hours of connectivity each day, according to Cisco. The additional 12 hours a day used in 2013 will come equally from passive uses that don't require our attention, and from active multitasking such as checking e-mail on a mobile phone while logged into a Web conference, or surfing for player statistics while watching a sports match, Cisco predicted.
The equipment vendor is particularly concerned by the effects our online video habits will have on network usage. As the screens competing for our attention get larger, they require more video data to fill them. More pixels, more time spent online, more devices -- and more people, too -- mean that Internet traffic will grow fourfold by 2013, said Doug Webster, Cisco's director of strategic communications.
Cisco's Visual Networking Index Forecast is of interest to network operators preparing for future demand and the equipment vendors that supply them -- but it may also catch the eye of government policy makers being asked to provide an "economic stimulus" for broadband network upgrades, which some measures of economic development link with better jobs and a better standard of living.
"Governments see the value that broadband can bring to quality of life," said Webster. "They are looking to bring in more capacity."
Internet traffic volume alone may not be the best measure of success for such initiatives, however, as services such as Internet radio or streaming video services can generate huge volumes of traffic without necessarily bringing direct economic benefits.
"With something like Pandora, you may have it streaming in the background," said Webster. "A lot of the time, you're not paying attention." Video catch-up services that download, say, all the matches played by a favorite sports team also waste bandwidth if only a few of those matches are ever watched, he said.
Another application often accused of consuming bandwidth without contributing to the economy is the practice of P-to-P file sharing. Record labels, movie studios and software publishers vilify the P-to-P networks over which this happens as dens of piracy.
Such P-to-P systems will continue to generate more traffic in the future, although as a share of overall Internet traffic their significance will diminish, Webster said. In part, that's because of the rise of legal sources of online music, such as the iTunes store, and of sites hosting professionally produced video, such as YouTube and Hulu, he said. "With so much professional content available to consumers, they are not necessarily looking for alternatives."