In 1956 Dr. Werner Buchholz coined the term byte to mean a unit of digital information equal to eight bits. In today’s world, the amount of information represented by a single byte is extremely small. For the uninitiated, the prefixes representing the increasing scale of magnitude of information go: kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, terabyte, petabyte, and exabyte. For a frame of reference, a megabyte is a 500-page textbook. A gigabyte is a standard two-hour broadcast quality movie. A terabyte of CD-quality audio is about 2,000 hours (over 83 days) worth. The 2009 162-minute box office smash hit, Avatar, reportedly used one petabyte of data storage for all the 3D CGI effects. Five exabytes represents all the words ever spoken by all the human beings in the entire world.
Projections for 2011 show total internet traffic will be about 350 exabytes. It is mind-boggling to think, then, that Cisco Systems’ recently released Visual Networking Index estimates that by 2015 traffic will reach 966 exabytes, 34 exabytes shy of a zettabyte. A zettabyte, incidentally, could comfortably store a century’s worth of constant tweeting by all the inhabitants of Earth with room to spare.
So what explains the trend that will produce 966,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of internet traffic in four years? According to Thomas Barnett, a senior manager at Cisco, this trend is largely based on a move away from short form media like low-quality YouTube videos to high definition full-length films on Netflix (Netflix accounts for 22.2% of all U.S. broadband traffic, increasing up to 30% at peak times). The exponential growth rate of internet traffic is also due to faster broadband connections – a 300% increase in average speed is projected by 2015 – and the worldwide proliferation of access to the internet.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the entire study says that the number of devices connected to IP networks will outnumber the global population two to one by 2015. Not only that, but 54% of traffic will come from a wireless device which in theory means there will be one wireless device for every living human. This seems to present a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: are media such as books and films migrating to the internet because of faster connections and a wider viewership or are more people using the internet because their favorite books and movies are now more readily available?