For a period of time last year I worked for a hosting provider in the marketing department. They tasked me with explaining the concept of bandwidth for the corporate blog, but they never used it. As I’ve been gone for the better part of a year, I figured I might share it without issue.

In the past, you could only watch entertainment when and where the providers said, in front of your TV via terrestrial cable at a prescribed time. At the same time, gaming was primarily an offline pursuit. Because media consumption is now on-demand, on location, over the Internet, and 24/7, hosting customers are finding their own customers eating through bandwidth far more quickly than they did a few years ago, and that quickly scalable hosting infrastructures will be more and more important.

Some stats: In 2011, more than 100 million Americans watched online video content each day, a 43% increase over the previous year. At the beginning of 2012, more than 11% of all digital traffic was consumed over smartphones and tablets; a year later that number had jumped to 21%. In addition, mobile device penetration is increasing fast. In Australia, the US and the UK, smart phone user penetration topped 50%. This is expected to be true in most of western Europe by 2014.

In this blog we’ll talk about what bandwidth means and how video, gaming, and advancements in mobile internet are driving bandwidth consumption.

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Bandwidth

In the context of web or data infrastructure hosting, we’re really talking about two things:

  1. An amount of data traffic going over the network, usually measured in bytes (kB, MB, GB). When a hosting company offers “unlimited bandwidth” it means the amount of data traffic served is limited only by the port’s capacity.
    In general, the term “unlimited” has been replaced with the more accurate “unmetered”.
  2. The rate at which data travels over the network as measured in bits per second (kbps, Mbps, Tbps).

On an unmetered port, your data traffic limit is calculated by multiplying the rate of the port (in bits) by the number of seconds in the period you want to discuss and dividing by 8 because traffic is measured in bytes, but port capacity is measured in bits. By this measurement, the daily traffic limit on an unmetered 1 Gb port should be 10.8 TB.

However, maximum port traffic generally runs 80-90% of maximum capacity. This 10-20% overhead includes bandwidth used by the communication protocol and transactions at other hardware and software layers of network communication.

So, when an article or report asserts that consumer demand for bandwidth is increasing, it refers to:

  • Demand for data, generally from the consumer including on-demand streaming media (YouTube, Netflix, Spotify), audio and video downloads (Amazon, iTunes, Bandcamp), gaming (World of Warcraft), voice over IP, and IPTV.
  • Consumer demand for higher mobile and fixed broadband data rates
  • Supplier demand for networks with greater capacity, servers with greater processing power, and more storage.

Three things currently drive bandwidth consumption:

  • 24/7 entertainment on demand
  • Increased image quality
  • 3G and 4G mobile internet usage

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