From Netflix’s latest global sensation and livestreamed Premier League football matches on Amazon Prime Video, to bandwidth-busting traffic when hit online games such as Fortnite or Call of Duty are updated, the demand for internet capacity has undergone unprecedented growth in recent years.
The pandemic supercharged this trend: lockdown boredom and home working helped to fuel the busiest days of internet traffic recorded in the UK, with internet usage doubling last year.
“Every terabyte of data consumed over and above current levels costs about £50m,” says Marc Allera, the chief executive of BT’s consumer division. “In the last year alone we’ve seen four terabytes of extra usage and the cost to keep up with that growth is huge.”
An overwhelming majority of day-to-day usage, up to 80%, is accounted for by only a handful of companies such as YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and the games company Activision Blizzard.
Allera says the rules that stop companies such as BT from passing on some of the costs to the biggest drivers of the capacity growth – net neutrality rules that stipulate that all internet traffic is treated equally – are outdated for the streaming era.
“A lot of the principles of net neutrality are incredibly valuable, we are not trying to stop or marginalise players but there has to be more effective coordination of demand than there is today,” he says. “When the rules were created 25 years ago I don’t think anyone would have envisioned four or five companies would be driving 80% of the traffic on the world’s internet. They aren’t making a contribution to the services they are being carried on; that doesn’t feel right.”
Net neutrality advocates fear that any change to its fundamental principles could lead to internet service providers ultimately deciding to block or restrict the speed of some services, and fast-track others who pay a fee, in turn affecting the consumer experience.
“We very much believe in a free and open internet,” says Jon Lloyd, the head of campaigns at the Mozilla Foundation. “All content needs to be treated the same, that is the principle of net neutrality. We have never asked content creators to pay internet service providers before and we shouldn’t now.” The Open Rights Group argues that tampering with net neutrality in the UK could open the door to the internet potentially being “split into a fast and a slow lane”.
However, in the US, Netflix and others have paid internet service providers (ISPs) fees for years to secure faster streaming speeds, while Amazon and Facebook do so in South Korea. “We’ve not seen the widespread blocking or throttling of traffic that was feared,” says Matthew Howett, the founder of the telecoms consultancy Assembly.
Streaming companies argue that they do, in effect, pay for their content being delivered through technical systems that dramatically reduce the costs to internet service providers. Netflix has a worldwide network of its own servers that deliver a Squid Game or Bridgerton to the equivalent of the internet doorstep for ISPs, shortening the distance data then travels to consumers, with the streaming giant paying billions in “transit charges”. Disney has a different system, in partnership with a technology company called Qwilt, although ISPs do also get fees from its model.
“Lately, we are finding that governments and ISPs are increasingly looking to content providers for financial support, arguing they should receive fees to support the deployment of broadband and 5G,” said an executive in the streaming industry. “We feel this is moving towards a violation of net neutrality principles, as consumers who purchase an internet service from an ISP should be able to reach any endpoint on the internet regardless of whether that content provider pays or not.”
Telecoms and broadband providers argue that action taken during the pandemic has proven that net neutrality needs to be revisited. Operators moved to “zero rate” education websites when schools were shut, meaning web users did not run down any data or incur charges to access them, giving preferential access to BBC Bitesize and Oak National Academy over other learning services.
“There is a stress testing of the rules going on,” Howett says. “The challenge is not a new one, it is about increasing margins and profitability for investors and they see revenue opportunities from those big content providers.”
Motivations aside, the boom in data consumption, and the need to manage and pay for capacity, is set to continue at breakneck pace. In 2011, an average household used 17GB of data using the internet each month, according to the consultancy group Communications Chambers. By last year that figure had reached 429GB on average. In November, Disney said it expected the “dizzying” demand for video content to grow ten-fold over the next two years.
“The only contribution being made is by consumers through what they pay or by us, the networks, does that feel fair?” Allera says. “There are other business models that would only require some amendments to net neutrality. We are only talking about the biggest players driving the largest consumption of content and data; there needs to be an evolution of the principles.”
Rocket Lab has taken delivery of NASA’s CAPSTONE spacecraft at its New Zealand launch pad ahead of a mission to the Moon.
It’s been quite a journey for CAPSTONE [Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment], which was originally supposed to launch from Rocket Lab’s US launchpad at Wallops Island in Virginia.
The pad, Launch Complex 2, has been completed for a while now. However, delays in certifying Rocket Lab’s Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) pushed the move to Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand.
The wet dress rehearsal for the launch was completed last night, prompting CEO Peter Beck to say: “Next stop…the Moon!”
“I always wanted to say that,” he added. Beck has long dreamed of sending his rockets beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and is planning a mission to Venus in 2023. However, the Moon is than the company has sent its rockets to date.
CAPSTONE is to be sent to a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, a location planned for the NASA, ESA, and CSA Gateway. CAPSTONE’s primary mission is to verify simulations that the interaction gravity of the Earth and Moon will make for a stable orbit.
The milestone was hit as Rocket Lab announced its first quarter 2022 results. Overall, the company made a net loss of $26.7 million, down from the $15.9 million loss of the same period last year, but revenues jumped to $40.7 million from $18.2 million. Most interesting was the make-up of that revenue. Space Systems (the company’s Photon spacecraft and the components it sells) accounted for a whopping 84 percent of Q1 revenue. Actual Electron rockets fared less well; during a call with analysts, CFO Adam Spice said that launches contributed just $6.6 million.
Going forward, the company expects second quarter revenues to be between $51 million and $54 million. It is including three dedicated launches in that figure (of which CAPSTONE is one). Two have already happened, and there is potential for a fourth, but the company has opted to take a prudent path and not include it in the figures.
As for CAPSTONE, it will be integrated with the Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft bus ahead of the launch window opening on May 31. The Electron will launch the spacecraft into LEO and the Photon will take care of the ballistic lunar transfer via multiple orbit raisings. A final burn of Photon’s engine will occur on the sixth day, enough to escape Earth orbit and send CAPSTONE on a course for the Moon. ®
A DCU Alpha spin-out, UrbanVolt says it sells power generated from solar energy at up to 30pc lower rates than traditional suppliers.
UrbanVolt, a Dublin-based clean energy company, has secured €36m in financing to expand its solar panel business in Ireland and the UK.
The funding includes a €30m asset-backed seven-year loan from Swedish credit fund PCP and €6m from existing funding partners, BVP and Beach Point Capital.
Founded in 2015 by Kevin Maughan, Graham Deane and Declan Barrett, UrbanVolt finances and installs solar panels on the rooftops of commercial and industrial businesses, selling the solar electricity generated to the businesses at up to 30pc lower rate than traditional suppliers.
The company said it also guarantees the price for up to 30 years, protecting businesses against rising energy costs for decades to come, with no minimum amount payable or standing charges – meaning that customers pay proportionate to their consumption.
“This is a transformational deal, which will allow us to scale at pace to meet the significant demand in the market while also streamlining the process of installing solar panels for our customers’ benefit,” said Maughan, who is also the CEO of the DCU Alpha spin-out.
“This first funding facility from PCP will see our project output grow by 20x over the coming years. It is also happening at a time when the demand for renewable energy is rising significantly given climate and geopolitical crises.”
The loan facility will be used to fund the installation of solar panels and related equipment on UrbanVolt’s primary target of commercial and industrial client sites in both Ireland and the UK.
It started supplying solar-generated electricity directly to businesses in Ireland last summer, since when it has agreed contracts with more than 60 companies and completed seven installations.
Maughan sad that there is “simply no compelling reason” for commercial and industrial operators to opt for traditional energy sources anymore, adding that UrbanVolt offers “unparalleled” price security and clean energy.
“By incorporating an ‘as a service’ business model, our customers only pay for the energy they use without a standing charge, and the cost of our equipment and its maintenance is kept off their balance sheet.”
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Digital investors have withdrawn savings in the “stablecoin” tether worth $7.6bn (£6.2bn) since the cryptocurrency crisis began last week, suggesting the company has paid out a sum almost twice its total cash holdings to spooked depositors.
Stablecoins are supposed to have a fixed value matched to a real-world asset, in most cases $1 a token. However, faith in the concept was rocked last Tuesday when another big player, terra, broke its peg to the dollar. That has fuelled a wider sell-off across the crypto sector, which relies on stablecoins for much of its financial engineering.
Tether, the third biggest cryptocurrency by “market cap”, experienced a short-lived crisis on Thursday when its value dropped from $1 to 95¢ as savers feared it would follow its fellow stablecoin terra and collapse. However, the token, which is controlled by a private company with close links to the crypto exchange Bitfinex, has since largely restored its dollar peg by honouring a promise to allow savers to always withdraw $1 for every tether they give back to the company.
The company only allows direct withdrawals of at least $100,000 for each request, and charges a fee of 0.1% on redemptions. Anyone with less tether than that minimum can only turn their money into dollars by finding someone to buy it from them – a disparity that fuelled the temporary collapse in value.
Despite the difficulties, according to public blockchain data, $7.6bn of tether has been reallocated in this way since Thursday. That is almost twice the cash that Tether had in its reserves at the end of last year, according to accounts published on its website.
Most of the rest of its reserves are held in “cash-like” assets, the majority of which are $35bn of US government debt and $25bn of corporate bonds. However, the company has refused to share any further details of the investments, with its chief technology officer, Paolo Ardoino, telling the Financial Times: “We don’t want to give our secret sauce.”
There have long been fears as to Tether’s ability to honour all redemptions. The company had once said it backed its currency with “US dollars”, a claim the New York attorney general said in 2021 “was a lie”. Now, it simply claims its currency is “backed 100% by Tether’s reserves”.
By contrast, terra was backed by a complex algorithm that required the value of a sister cryptocurrency, luna, to constantly rise in order to maintain the dollar peg. When the crash hit last week, the system went into a “death spiral”, automatically printing more luna, which crashed the price further, until luna lost 99.9995% of its value in a matter of days and terra was left languishing at $0.11.
The charismatic founder of the Terra project, Do Kwon, has said he wants to relaunch the currency. In a proposal posted to the project’s message board on Friday, he suggested wiping all ownership of luna, and redistributing 1bn new tokens, with most going to those who hold the stablecoin, or who held luna before last week’s crash.
“It is a hard balance – and no easy answers in redistributing value within the network,” Kwon wrote. “But value must be distributed to allow the ecosystem to survive, and in its current state it will not.”
Kwon also faces questions about how the vast sums of bitcoin that his project had amassed to back terra were spent. According to a breakdown shared by the organisation, it sold more than 80,000 bitcoins, worth more than $2.4bn, to unnamed parties in exchange for terra valued at $1 – at a time when the public price of the currency was under 75¢.
The jitters around stablecoins have combined with a general slump in tech stocks and the wider US downturn to trigger a wider crisis of confidence across the crypto sector. Bitcoin and ethereum, the two biggest cryptocurrencies, are down more than 10% over the last seven days, with ethereum dropping 17% to less than $2,000. Smaller currencies have, as always, been more volatile, with dogecoin falling 26% over the week.
Even some of the most vocal backers of digital currencies are now querying the promises of the sector. The founder of the crypto exchange FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried, said in an interview with the Financial Times that bitcoin has no future as a payments network because of the inherent inefficiencies of its blockchain, the public digital register that records its transactions. Instead, he argued, it could only function as a gold-like store of long-term value.