With a click on your Xbox, your Wii, your Roku or a fast-growing class of gadgets that stream Internet video, you’ve instantly brought Johnny Depp into your living room.
Netflix last week set a new pricing schedule that nudges consumers toward computers and away from mailboxes. So by tapping into the company’s “play now” feature to watch “Alice in Wonderland,” you swerve into a high-consumption data traffic lane.
For now that’s no problem. The Net can handle the less than 2 percent of people online at peak hours who pump Netflix video to their TVs. That’s even with Netflix traffic making up more than 17 percent of the data gushing around the Web.
Now imagine what might happen come Christmas, when the flood of electronics is unwrapped and plugged in, and perhaps 20 percent of us stream video off the Internet.
Few experts see the backbone of the Internet reaching gridlock anytime soon. Rather, they liken it to a lightly traveled interstate highway system where more lanes could be opened without much expense.
The trouble is the last mile of the Internet — the cable or telephone line to your house built for far narrower lanes of traffic.
Today it might be easy enough to watch a high-definition streaming movie. But those local lanes could quickly become overwhelmed once all your neighbors sit down for marathons of “The Office” over the Internet.
More traffic may have just been routed that way. As Netflix increased its mail subscription rates, it introduced a cheaper online-only deal for $8 a month.
“If you see whole lot of people in that last mile trying to stream video, you could imagine them going, ‘Whoa! Crap!’” said Dan Andresen, a Kansas State University computer scientist. “When that happens, things are going to have to change.”
It could mean your Internet service provider — maybe AT&T’s DSL or U-Verse service or Time Warner Cable’s RoadRunner — might need to cap your consumption. They might raise rates to pay for improvements on that last mile. Or you could be introduced to a baffling choice of services depending on whether you want the Internet for e-mail and shopping, for online gaming, or to bring Hollywood movies to your living room.
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