Energy Star Equivalent Needed for Application Bandwidth Consumption

It’s time to address content provider-generated bandwidth demand

The FCC (or someone) should implement an Energy Star equivalent for bandwidth consumption by Internet applications such as Google and Facebook to educate consumers about demand placed on their broadband connections by the prodigious growth in resource consumption by major websites, browsers, and behind-the-scenes services. The Internet is an economic ecosystem. It is impossible to promote its health by focusing solely on either the supply or the demand sides of the system. Until now, all eyes have been on the supply side but not the demand side. Responsible stewardship requires a balanced approach that includes both sides of the equation.

"Clandestine demand" for bandwidth, combined with the proliferation of digital devices, means that every US household will continually need more bandwidth. The typical consumer is not only unaware of the hidden demand, but also lacks the means to control it, mistaking free or very cheap applications for a free lunch. Consumers will eventually pay for those "lunches" in the form of more expensive broadband service. Meanwhile, purveyors of devices, applications, and content count on the consumer's willingness to pay in order to succeed at invisible activities with high bandwidth demands such as the traffic required to determine which ads will appear on users' screens at any moment. The latest high-demand trend among content providers is to preload content that the user may or may not ever want to see. NetForecast believes that this economic model will lead to an unsustainable imbalance between Internet resource supply and demand.

This leads us to recommend an Energy Star equivalent for Internet applications' bandwidth consumption.

A Proposal

The FCC should undertake a new initiative that follows the consensus model it used to measure ISP performance. The FCC can create a new collaborative forum of technologists, content providers, device makers, ISPs and academics to develop a plan to document digital demand. The following project elements should be considered:

  • Profile major application-use scenarios in a lab environment. Many tools can be used to document what actually transpires on the wire.

  • Measure aggregate traffic demand at a number of households. This effort could leverage the existing SamKnows network of white boxes.
  • Have major content providers contribute data that quantifies usage needs. The content providers will also be key to vetting the results from the other elements.

This demand-side project will require consensus on metrics, measurement techniques, analysis, and visualization of results. However, there will also be policy issues to examine such as economic impact, fostering innovation, and consumer education.

The FCC's broadband measurement program is evidence that the FCC can successfully lead a similar initiative to fill in the missing half of the economic picture. The FCC made a step in the right direction when it recently hosted the OECD Broadband Metrics Workshop that covered supply-side topics in the context of the SamKnows measurement system currently being implemented in more than two dozen countries.

The ultimate aim of the effort should be to implement an Energy Star equivalent for bandwidth consumption by Internet applications. This is a good idea whose time has come. 

(This posting is part of a series about NetForecast's newly published report "FCC's "Measuring Broadband America" Report Tells Only Half the Story". Click here to get the FCC report.)

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.