The internet in rich countries will be unrecognizable from the rest of the world’s in five years

Looking for a shorter connection.
Looking for a shorter connection.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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The internet is being reshaped by private networks owned by the world’s tech giants: firms like Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. The majority of internet traffic already flows over such private networks, called content delivery networks (CDNs), but that proportion is set to increase to over 70% of global internet traffic over the next five years, according to Cisco’s annual forecast of internet traffic trends.

CDNs are used to improve user experience of some types of online media, especially video streams. While they are not new, they are exerting increasing impact on the topology of the internet because of the sheer amount of traffic they handle. Such networks were typically run by third-party telecommunications firms that dealt with enterprises, firms like Akamai or Limelight Networks. But the rise of video streaming over the internet has meant rapidly rising investment by consumer-facing companies like Netflix, Google, and Facebook. The rising proportion of traffic flowing over CDNs has led to a phenomenon known as the “flattening” of the internet.

The dominance of CDNs is going to be more pronounced in some regions, particularly wealthy areas like North America, western Europe and Asia Pacific, according to Cisco. For example, 91% of all internet traffic in North America will flow over a CDN by 2021, compared to just 31% in the Middle East and Africa. Here’s the breakdown:

Tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, or Google are increasingly investing in their own CDNs to ship bits to their users. The proportion of traffic flowing over these proprietary networks will also be more pronounced in wealthier regions, Cisco predicts. Some 60% of all internet traffic will flow over a private CDN—one set up by a firm to serve its customers, like Netflix, for instance—in North America in 2021. Ten percent of internet traffic in the Middle East and Africa will flow over a private CDN in that year, Cisco forecasts.

Users who are well served by CDNs will have better online experiences: They will get buffer-free movies, stream live video smoothly, or get lag-free video gaming experiences. “Each kilometer or mile or distance that video content has to travel degrades or reduces the level of quality of that experience,” says Thomas Barnett, who led work on the report at Cisco.

Does the lag in CDN service in some regions create the potential for a new digital divide? Barnett doesn’t think so. “We’ve seen this trend with all technologies,” he says. “I think CDNs like everything else, the cost will go down … Ultimately when the GDP and overall economic situations improve, and there’s demand for these services, we’ll see further investment there.”