All bits running over the Internet are not equal and should not be treated that way by broadband providers, despite net neutrality advocates' calls for traffic neutral regulations, Cisco Systems said.
A huge number of Internet-connected devices with a wide variety of traffic requirements, including billions of machine-to-machine connections, will come online over the next four years, Cisco predicted in its Visual Networking Index Global Forecast and Service Adoption, released Tuesday.
"What we're seeing is a wide range and a very diverse range of devices, applications and requirements that results in a much greater complexity of the networks," said Robert Pepper, Cisco's vice president for global technology policy. "The Internet of everything is here, it's real, and it's growing."
Some Web-based applications, including rapidly growing video services, home health monitoring and public safety apps, will demand priority access to the network, while others, like most Web browsing and email, may live with slight delays, said Jeff Campbell, Cisco's vice president for government and community relations.
"We really have a multiplicity of applications and services that are now running across the network, some of which require dramatically different treatment than others," he said.
Some net neutrality advocates have objected to U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposed rules that would allow broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" traffic management.
Cisco has long called on the FCC to allow broadband providers to manage their traffic. "It's going to be more and more important to manage the traffic on the network in a way that does not treat all bits the same," Campbell said. "Different bits do matter differently. We need to ensure that we have a system that allows this to occur."
It's important that the FCC ensure an open Internet, but it's also important that "we have a robust network," Campbell said. The FCC should allow broadband providers to maintain quality of service "to ensure that some applications will run properly and effectively on the Internet," Campbell said. "That means using the intelligence of the network to ensure that those bits receive the quality of service they need."
In addition to a rapidly expanding number of devices connected to the Internet, peak time traffic will increase faster than average network traffic, putting a strain on broadband providers and driving demand for traffic management, Cisco said.
Matt Wood, policy director at digital rights group Free Press, questioned Cisco's conclusions about net neutrality. In some cases, applications needing priority traffic may not run on the public Internet, where net neutrality rules would apply, he said. For example, many machine-to-machine applications may run on spectrum set aside for them, he said.
"Even if [applications] do use the open Internet, do they in fact need priority to function?" Wood added by email. "Or do Cisco and the ISPs just want to make a buck by selling priority?"
Some Cisco predictions of Internet traffic, including predictions of a video-driven "exaflood" haven't panned out, Wood said.
"What expertise [Cisco's past predictions] give them in assessing the supposed need for the company's own proprietary deep packet inspection and priority routing tools, I certainly don't know," he said.
Some predictions from Cisco's latest report:
-- Global IP traffic will increase by a 21 percent compound annual growth rate between 2013 and 2018, from 51 exabytes a month to 132 exabytes per month.
-- U.S. IP traffic will growth by a 20 percent compound annual growth rate, despite the fact that most U.S. residents are already online. That growth will be driven by new devices, including tablets and Web-connected high-definition television sets, Cisco said.
-- IP video will be 79 percent of all IP traffic by 2018, up from 66 percent in 2013.
-- Machine-to-machine devices, while having relatively small traffic demands, will make up 47 percent of the IP-connected devices in the U.S. in 2018, compared to just 25 percent in 2013. There will be 7.3 billion connected M2M devices worldwide by 2018.
-- Wi-Fi and mobile-connected devices will generate 61 percent of IP traffic by 2018, with Wi-Fi at 49 percent and traditional cellular at 12 percent. Wi-Fi's percentage was 41 percent, cellular was 3 percent and fixed broadband was 56 percent in 2013.
-- By 2018, there will be nearly 21 billion global network connections, up from about 12.4 billion connections in 2013.
-- Global broadband speeds will reach 42Mbps by 2018, up from 16Mbps at the end of 2013.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is email@example.com.