Limit internet growth to control energy consumption scientists say

Limiting data growth and the expansion of the internet could help to lower energy consumption and carbon emissions, according to Lancaster University computer scientists.

They argue that the growth of remote digital sensors and devices that are connected to the internet, commonly known as the Internet of Things, has the potential to bring unprecedented rises in energy consumed by smart technologies.

Internet usage has increased significantly in recent years, with people increasingly watching video and streaming programmes on large smart TV's with resolutions up to 4K. In addition to regularly checking their Facebook and Twitter accounts and even using online social media to track their runs and bike rides, internet usage has been expanding rapidly and looks set to continue doing so.

According to Ofcom, the UK telecommunications regulator, home monthly broadband data volumes in the UK rocketed from 17GB in 2011 to 82GB in 2015.

While data volumes for mobile devices are typically smaller, they are growing rapidly, more than doubling every few years according to Ericsson and Cisco.

This increase in data use has brought with it an associated rise in energy consumption, despite improvements in energy efficiencies.

Current estimates suggest the internet accounts for five per cent of global electricity use, but is growing faster at seven per cent a year, than total global energy consumption at three per cent.

Some predictions claim information technologies could account for as much as 20 per cent of total energy use by 2030.

The researchers argue that up to now there has always been a potential ceiling for increases in data on the internet. These include the finite, albeit growing, number of people on the planet and the limited number of hours in a day that people can interact with online technology.

However, autonomous streaming of data by billions of sensors built into everything from street furniture, driverless vehicles and smart home thermostats, to industrial production processes such as oil wells, removes the existing potential constraints to the growth in internet energy consumption.

Dr Mike Hazas, senior lecturer at Lancaster University said: “The internet is consuming an increasing portion of global electricity supply and this growing consumption is a significant concern in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

“The nature of internet use is changing and forms of growth, such as the Internet of Things, are more disconnected from human activity and time-use. Communication with these devices occurs without observation, interaction and potentially without limit.”

The researchers believe serious consideration should be given to how limits to data growth could be planned, before the forecast growth of the Internet of Things occurs. There are currently 6.4 billion connected Internet of Things devices and it is estimated this could reach 21 billion by 2020.

“The Internet of Things is still in the making and it is important to consider existing ideas for a ‘speed limit’ to the system, especially in comparison to having to retrospectively reduce internet traffic in the future,” said Hazas.

The Lancaster authors point out that it is not clear how data limits could be imposed, but options could include volume quotas and different traffic pricing for the most data-intensive online services.

At the end of June, a massive internet cable was laid under the Pacific Ocean between Japan and the US to boost data speeds and capacity. 

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