Reinforce digital levees before the Exaflood hits


There's nothing like a good doomsday scenario to capture the public's attention. At the turn of the century, it was Y2K, the mass computer malfunction bent on bringing the civilized world to a screeching halt. We've since moved on to SARS, bird flu and Lindsay Lohan.

But if you're already growing restless about what's worth dreading on the horizon, allow me to introduce you to the next great unknown: the Exaflood.

The term, coined by Bret Swanson of the Discovery Institute, refers to the massive tonnage of data that flows through the Internet. Exaflood is derived from the exabyte, which is the equivalent of 1.074 billion gigabytes. No doubt 1.068 billion of that is pornography.

Helluva name though, that Exaflood. Kind of like "The Exorcist," only with a tsunami twist at the end.

The problem is, it might be getting worse. Last week, Nemertes Research projected that demand for broadband is on course to exceed actual global capacity in about two years. Consequently, download speeds for all sorts of content, from e-mail to video, will move like molasses. We're talking permanent rush hour on the 405.

You have to wonder whether one day the average consumer will have to conserve his or her Internet usage like it was their sprinkler during a summer drought. I don't know about you, but I can't get by on just one YouTube video a day.

Just look at the controversy enveloping Comcast, which admitted to intentionally impeding activity among subscribers overdosing on BitTorrent. Although I'm a former customer -- perhaps a better term would be "survivor" -- of the cable operator, I still can't help but feel a measure of sympathy. As a consumer who tends to avoid peer-to-peer piracy, I don't like the idea that someone else's copyright-infringing habits are keeping my daily Stephen Colbert video streaming as fast as they can.

Suddenly, the whole concept of net neutrality starts to seem like a bad idea. On a theoretical level, it seems unfair to penalize giants like Google just because they require more bandwidth.

Still, the Exaflood already is attracting naysayers who say the concern is overblown and a scare tactic being employed by net-neutrality opponents like the telcos. Maybe so, but expanding the global network is going to take some serious investment.

As for how much it's going to take, here's the good news from Nemertes: It's only going to take $137 billion to clear all those clogged pipes Al Gore invented. We're talking about a lot of digital Drano.

To that I say, begin docking my paycheck immediately. As anyone who has made the transition from dial-up to broadband speed knows, there is no going back. If I must shoulder the burden alone, so be it, but at my current salary level, I will be able to bail the world out by the year 3030, give or take a decade.

This from someone who admits to gnashing his teeth in despair if the video streaming from for an episode of "The Office" so much as buffers for a second.

And therein lies the issue at hand: If I'm any self-respecting conglomerate-based studio, I've got to be worried about investing significant sums in building digital content operations only to see them slowed by conditions beyond their control. It's akin to erecting a skyscraper on a patch of land covering a seismic fault line.

So don't just stand there. Do something!