Watching the latest, hilarious stage in the Jimmy Kimmel-Matt Damon "feud" -- which racked up 2.5 million YouTube views in one day -- I was struck by a thought: who in the world is paying for all this bandwidth?
I know, I know: advertising, sponsorships, that sort of thing. But on the whole, I think it's fair to say the Internet gives us a lot more information than we're getting back. The only thing making up the gap is the global belief that there's profit to be made in all this -- and that the cost of delivering millions of mock homoerotic music videos to desktops around the world is just one small part of A Very Good Thing.
Now, we hear that Google is giving back in its own small way -- making a US$50 million investment that will turn the search-engine-that-could into the Asia-Pacific region's newest telecoms operator.
We've already heard about Google's interest in the US 700MHz radiofrequency spectrum auction, but Google's partnership -- a one-sixth share of the new US$300m Unity undersea cable -- marks the first time a non-telco has taken a major interest in such a significant global infrastructure project.
In the broader world, it is not perhaps without precedent: mining giants often invest heavily in the transport, social and other infrastructure around areas where they're setting up a new mine, for example.
The IT world, however, has a relatively poor history of investing in enablers for its own growth: in the established paradigm, service providers pony up for the pipes to deliver information and their customers -- the YouTubes, MySpaces, Yahoos and other stars of the Web 2.0 world -- deliver their content on a best-effort basis.
In this free-market model, customers punish poor service delivery -- congested and unreliable networks -- by shifting to competing sites. However, Google's investment -- pocket change for a company with US$14.22 billion in cash -- is less of an effort to stave off customer exodus than an investment to ensure it can continue its own dizzying growth.
That growth, Google clearly agrees with the rest of the world, lies in Asia -- as evinced by 63.7 percent compound annual growth in bandwidth demand between 2002 and 2007, according to researchers TeleGeography.
But instead of burdening the region's emergent yet historically underserviced infrastructure, Google is playing the responsible corporate citizen and helping minimise its impact on the world's Internet ecosystem.
If this reminds you of the principles espoused in the controversial Kyoto Protocol , you've beaten me to my philosophical segue for the week. With discussion about global warming fuelling carbon-credit programs for everything from cars to cruise lines and even the AFL, Google's investment could theoretically encourage a new generation of bandwidth hogs to become bandwidth-neutral -- repaying their debt to the Internet by funding network infrastructure to offset their bandwidth consumption.
The danger, of course, is that if this sort of thing got out of hand, employers might start pushing for compensation for the footprint of Web 2.0 ventures like Facebook and MySpace, which together consume an inordinate amount of work time and bandwidth.
ISPs could pursue BitTorrent index operators for eating up their network bandwidth. Heck, maybe I could even pursue the Ten Network for consuming perfectly good TV bandwidth broadcasting the drivel that is Big Brother.
Google has practical reasons for its investment, as well: TeleGeography also tells us that bandwidth across the Pacific costs eight times as much as bandwidth across the Atlantic, so this investment should save Google heaps by giving it access to that bandwidth at cost. As a side project, Google could actually turn its part of the pipe into a nice money-earner if it resells some of that bandwidth at half the cost of its competitors -- and pipe-owning partners).
Could the same thing happen in Australia? Unlikely.
Here, as in most of the rest of the real world, content services tend to offer best-effort services that let customers deal with whatever bandwidth is out there -- which is precisely why downloadable movie services are still so irrelevant to most of us (witness Video Ezy's decision to build its digital movie service around sneakernet rather than our anaemic ADSL).
In the marriage of content and carriage, the list of Australian participants probably starts and stops with Seven's interest in wireless player Unwired, and Telstra's investment in Next G as a mechanism for services like Foxtel by Mobile.
When it comes down to it, though, there just aren't any big enough online players here that would be concerned enough about end-to-end user experience to sink cold, hard cash into national infrastructure. So while Australia's new-found participation in the Kyoto Protocol may provide karma points in countering our love of fossil fuels, it appears we still have no way of counterbalancing our love of bandwidth. When we can get it.