Electronic Design

If Music Cravings Topple Networks, What Will Video Do?

Over the last few months, many stories in the consumer press have detailed the popularity of MP3 music files and the avid downloading of such files by both office workers and college students. The popularity of these music downloads is slowing down corporate and university networks, due to the substantial file sizes of the music and the large quantities of files that users want to move. In addition, search and transfer services, like those offered by the popular Napster program and similar offerings from other companies, have compounded the data bandwidth problem. These utilities allow one computer to search over the Internet for other computers that also run the same program, and then transfer files from that computer to the computer running the search.

Thus, users of the software can collect an almost unlimited number of MP3 music files. Each typically requires between 3 and 5 Mbytes, or CD music files that are typically 35 to 50 Mbytes each. Unlike letters and memos, which normally only require tens of kbytes and transfer in the blink of an eye, MP3 music files take between five and 10 seconds on a clear 10-Mbit/s channel. Also, CD music files only take a few minutes. On a highly used channel, the time increases considerably because of packet collisions. To the consternation of researchers and executives, music file transfers have brought the networks at some organizations to their knees, slowing traffic to crawl.

But, music files are just the tip of the data iceberg. Video files are the next target for Napster-like programs. Such files can easily hit 100 Mbytes for just a 15-minute clip. Full-length movies contain multiple gigabytes of data. If video files will be shared in the same way as audio files, we should batten down the hatches and prepare for the next ice age. Cable modems, DSL interfaces, and even 100-Mbit Ethernet systems will barely be able to move data. Even Gigabit networks will operate at the speed of molasses in the wintertime.

Companies and universities are already starting to deal with the music problem, in some cases attempting to totally ban the use of Napster and similar programs. In a few instances, such action has almost led to student revolts. Total bans apparently aren't the answer. Plus, the music industry is trying to reduce the use of such software because companies feel it bypasses the copyright laws and allows users to obtain "illegal" copies of the content, while skirting the issue of royalty payments to the artists.

Just what should be done to ensure that everyone will be kept "happy"? Faster networks can solve the bottleneck, but who pays for new hardware? Student benefits are usually pretty low on the priorities list, so don't expect the dorms to see upgrades soon. How far should the music industry be permitted to go? Should file sharing software be banned? Should universities and companies ban music traffic? What are your thoughts?

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