Fictoid #12:
The Kudzu Internet

On August 10, 2000, The New York Times authoritatively reported that Internet traffic doubles every 100 days. It was not alone in projecting Kudzu-like exponential growth for the Internet. A similar statistic had been cited by a host of gurus of the Internet, including George Gilder, Jack Grubman and Tom Peters. Its credibility had been greatly enhanced by the government. First, in 1998,the Commerce Department, in its first major study on its economic impact , reported, "Internet traffic doubles every 100 days," then the Federal Communications Commission echoed the same mantra.

If this claim was true, the amount of Internet traffic would increase more than a thousand percent a year. Such exponential growth, when extrapolated over the next six years, would increase the number of responses to hits from 100 million a day in 2000 to 100 trillion in 2006. Even if one assumed 2 billion people would have computers by then, and spend 24 hours a day on them, they each would have to respond 30 times a minute to provide such traffic, and them such proliferation, doubling every 100 days, would leave little time for non-Internet activities.

As improbable as such growth might seem, it became, as The Economist put it (July 2002) "the industry's favorite statistic" and " an essential ingredient of dotcom business plans and conference slide-shows."

In anticipation of this projected traffic, telecommunication companies, such as Global Crossing, laid hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber optic cables both on land and under oceans, and arbitragers, such as Enron, organized markets to trade broadband capacity like any other scarce commodity.

As seductive as the statistic that Internet traffic mushrooms to twice its size every 100 days may have been to Wall Street speculators, banks and venture capitalists, it is a fictoid. The extent that the projected kudzu-like traffic failed to materialize is reflected by two dismal measures: the actual utilization of the fiber optic cables constructed to carry Internet traffic, and the actual price of bandwidth for this traffic. In 2002, over 97 percent of these fiber optic networks— which were pipes filled with silicon (or, in many cases, empty holes)-- had no traffic on them whatsoever. The price of bandwidth had fallen meanwhile by nearly 70 percent.

How did such a fictoid take root in the corporate mind and its media accomplice? Andrew Odlyzko, a former ATT researcher, who first exposed it in November 2000, traced the origin of the statistic to a subsidiary of WorldCom, called UUNET. UUNET, which described itself as the "backbone of the Internet," reported in the mid nineteen-nineties that it had been doubling its own capacity (or over-capacity) every few months to avoid a "capacity crunch." And that part may have been true since UUNET counted in this measure all the pipes for fiber optics— empty or full— that WorldCom was building and swapping to increase its capacity. Both the Commerce Department and Federal Communications Commission based their statistic about growth on the UUNET data about capacity. For a brief period in the early nineties, while the Internet was being transformed from a academic research resource to a mass marketing media with cookies, spam and cheap access, traffic may have increased at an exponential rate. But as Odlyzko amply demonstrated, Internet traffic could not have been doubling tri-annually when that phenomena was reported by the Department of Commerce in 1998, or when it was endlessly repeated by the Internet Gurus and entered into the media's clip files unchallenged.

By this time, it was fully detached from any reality.

 Any further examples of uncorrected fictoids?

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