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Limit internet expansion to save energy, say scientists

The world should consider limits to the growth of data traffic carried over the internet to prevent run-away energy consumption and help limit carbon emissions, argue scientists from Lancaster University in the UK.

In their position paper, the researchers point out 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 and, in principle, almost unlimited rises in energy consumed by smart technologies.

Changing patterns of data consumption are also having an effect as broadband connections become faster and applications are developed to exploit the extra bandwidth. According to Ofcom, the UK telecom 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 also 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 use, 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.

Dr Mike Hazas, senior lecturer at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications, 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 researchers argue that up to now there has always been a potential ceiling for increases in data consumption over 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, would remove those constraints on growth in internet energy consumption. Estimates vary, but the number of connected IoT devices could easily reach 26 billion by 2020 (see Cisco Visual Networking Index predicts 10 billion new connected devices by 2020).

Hazas commented: ‘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. They 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.

The position paper was developed in response to an article by Kris de Decker of Low-Tech Magazine, in which he examined the energy consumption of the internet and whether it should be controlled.

‘It is intriguing to examine the claim that the energy used by the Internet will continue to grow until the availability of energy itself becomes problematic, that is, unless some other kind of checks or limits to growth are imposed first. This is a rather radical, fascinating and, in so far as it is plausible, troubling claim,’ the Lancaster authors wrote in their paper.

The paper was presented at the 2nd Workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS '16), in Irvine, California, earlier this summer.

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