Global Internet Traffic Routes Around US Eroding Its Dominance

US is losing its dominance on the global Internet data flow. Moreover, a few countries -- particularly upstart ones like China, South Korea and even India -- are already giving US a run for its money in terms of investing heavily in next-generation Internet technology, and even cutting US out of the routing loop.

by / October 21, 2008 0
Internet Routes Around US Mikey G Ottawa. Creative Commons License Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Time was when the Internet couldn't do without America. After all America invented it and developed it to the extent that for over three decades, no matter where Internet data originated or headed, it had to pass through the fat pipes and fast switches there. Yet as the use of Internet explodes elsewhere in the world, America is not only fast losing its central status but is also seen as a country that may be risky for routing Internet data.

In late August the NYT carried a report that raised quite a bit of furor in the USA. It said that much to the dismay of many - and of the American intelligence community in particular -- Internet data is increasingly bypassing the United States, taking a more direct route. And although the Internet is built that way -- to be universal and not subject to a central point of control, the fact that Internet traffic is flowing around US is not good news for America. Not only does it make it "impossible for the United States to maintain its hegemony", but it also has long term "military and intelligence consequences."

The report has hit a sensitive spot. Quite a few experts that this correspondent spoke to -including a few who have been quoted in the report -- found it difficult to accept that Internet data flow is slackening in the US and even if data is bypassing the country, so what? "The idea of U.S. hegemony over data flow is silly," wrote one of the experts quoted in that report in her blog.

Yet take a look at some of the recent research reports and some other tell-tale signs and it becomes evident that US is losing its dominance on the global Internet data flow. Moreover, a few countries -- particularly upstart ones like China, South Korea and even India -- are already giving US a run for its money in terms of investing heavily in next-generation Internet technology, and even cutting US out of the routing loop.

"In 1996, two-thirds of the world's online population was in the US but the country now accounts for less than 21% of the worldwide Internet population," said Magid Abraham, Co-founder and CEO of comScore, Inc., that calls itself a global Internet information provider of real-time measurement of Internet use. He added that "though the Top 10 Global properties are still all based in the United States, they source the majority of their audience from outside the US."

According to another report released in May by Park Associates, with Internet penetration at a comfortable 71%, although almost four of five US households have access to the Internet today, there is still a fairly high percentage - about 20 million, or 18% of all households- of US consumers who does not have access to the Internet and very few of them plan on using the Internet in the foreseeable future.

Admittedly, like it or not, the fact is that the global Internet traffic is increasingly bypassing the US. "If you go back to the mid-1990s, which was the beginning of the commercialization of the Internet, very few places outside the USA had Internet exchanges with long distance capacity," says Steve Gibbar, an Internet infrastructure consultant who runs his own consulting firm Steve Gibbard Consulting. "And most countries when they got their initial Internet connections, were buying connectivity to somewhere that is much better connected and in the beginning that was the US. But pretty quickly after the Internet became commercialized in the mid-90s we started seeing that sending traffic through this route wasn't very efficient. So that's how [Internet exchanges in] other places like London. Amsterdam, Tokyo, Seoul got developed and Internet traffic started flowing directly instead of going through the US."

But that may be just one of the reasons. According to the NYT report a serious hurdle that global Internet traffic faces while passing through the US is the practice of intercepting the Internet traffic, a practice the country adopted through a National Security Agency program in 2005. This along with the Patriotic Act, has not only made many companies outside US wary of storing client information in the US, but has also forced some countries to move traffic away, says the report.

"And that has had a serious political fallout," says Andrew Odlyzko, a professor of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota, and the principal investigator at the Minnesota Internet Traffic Studies (MINTS). "Many countries [like Japan, China, and other Asian countries, many European countries, and even some of US's neighboring countries] do not want {US) intelligent agencies to snoop on their traffic and have established alternative routes."

In fact according to Andrew Odlyzko, instead of worrying that the Internet could be on the verge of collapse from the flood of traffic, perhaps America should start worrying about "too little traffic."

A Comscore research adds fuel to Odlyzko's argument. It says that out of projected 1 billion Internet users by March 2010, 4 out of every 10 will be in Asia, and only 2 out of 10 will be in North America. Besides, worldwide growth too of 10.4% in 2007, is faster than Europe and North America. This growth is being driven by the Asia Pacific region, with a 13.9% increase on a very large base.

"The thing is Internet is still growing in the US and growing quite rapidly but not as rapidly as it should and as it is growing in other countries. That may be an area of concern," says Odlyzko.

He adds that a fast Internet growth rate is still critical for America because that is the strongest driver of the future of the core network, backbone providers, their suppliers of fiber, and every other Internet-related infrastructure. "Internet traffic growth gives inexpensive Internet proliferation and the danger in a low growth rate is that as Internet companies we may not have enough incentives to invest in capacities for handling new demands," he says.

This may not be the only consequence of falling Internet traffic in the US.

In mid August for instance, Cogent Communications, one of the largest backbone carriers in the United States, said that that its data traffic actually declined by 1 percent during that second quarter of 2008. A drop of 1 percent may look insignificant by itself, but according to MINTS, compared to the fact that Cogent's traffic grew 6 percent in January 2008 (but was flat in February and march) and 75 percent in all of 2007, this fall could indeed be a cause for worry.

And there's a political aspect to it as well. "I do not think any country likes to give up control of the infrastructure to somebody else as it then creates a problem for the intelligence agencies who are no longer able to monitor the Internet traffic," says Odlyzko. "The intelligence guys would like to monitor as much as Internet traffic a possible."

Nevertheless, experts say that it is also inevitable that regardless of how fast US grows, its share in global Internet traffic volume is bound to decline in the years ahead. "It is a natural phenomenon," says Andrew Lipsman, a Comscore Analyst. "When a market nears a point of saturation then growth rates inevitably decline. So in any technology adoption there is usually a period of rapid growth and then over a period of time the growth rates subside."

Vanessa Gray, analyst, International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies concurs. "With a population of about 300 million, there is a limit to which Internet traffic can grow in the US," she said.

This why feels Gibbard that for US, it doesn't matter whether Internet Traffic is growing in the country or not, or, how much of the global Internet traffic is flowing through its shores. "Instead, I think we should focus more on newer technologies and improving the present infrastructure," he says.

Photo: Mikey G Ottawa. Creative Commons License Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic