The Internet is already consuming at least 8 per cent of Britain’s power output Photo: (c) John Rensten
Internet access may soon need to be rationed or restricted because the UK’s power supply and communications network cannot cope with consumers’ appetite for online video, the Royal Society will hear this week.
The Internet is already consuming at least 8 per cent of Britain’s power output, with the energy demand from data transmission and storage as well as smartphones, laptops and televisions. Demand doubles every four years, according to one estimate.
At the same time optical cables and switches are set to reach their capacity to carry data by the end of the decade.
The Royal Society will hear this week that the country’s communications networks face a “potentially disastrous capacity crunch”, as academics meet to discuss the problem.
"The Internet is already consuming at least 8 per cent of Britain's power output, equivalent to the output of three nuclear power stations, and demand is soaring," Andrew Ellis, professor of optical communications at Aston University, told the Sunday Times.
"It's the first time we have had to worry about optical fibres actually filling up."
He said: "It is growing so fast, currently at an exponential rate, that, in theory, it could be using all the UK power generation by 2035.
“We cannot make all that extra power, so we will have to restrict or reduce access, perhaps by metering consumers so they pay for what they use."
Laying extra cables to take more data is likely to lead to sharp rises in Internet access costs and also the amount of power needed, he said. New cables could quickly reach their limit too, at the current rate of demand.
Prof Ellis said the public had to begin deciding whether they were prepared to pay more for Internet access.
Technical advances have already greatly multiplied the amount of data that can be sent down optical fibres, but scientists now fear they are reaching the physical limit of what the cables can take without distorting the signal.
Andrew Lord, head of optical access at BT, said: “It's the first time we have had to worry about optical fibres actually filling up.
“We could expand the network by laying more cables but the economics of that do not work and it would increase power consumption."
He said one solution would be rationing, where Internet users including businesses and housholds would be charged for data usage. "New cables laid now could fill in a year or two of being installed, which is far too short," he said. "If we don't fix this then in 10 years time the Internet could have to cost more."