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Every few years, someone predicts the imminent collapse of the Internet. Bob Metcalfe–Ethernet inventor, 3Com founder, and Technology Review patron–famously said at a 1995 Web conference that he would eat his words from a pessimistic Infoworld column if the Web didn’t disappear within a year under the strain of traffic overloads and other problems. In April 1997, Metcalfe contritely drank a milkshake containing the torn-up bits of his column. In 2004, Helsinki University of Technology professor Hannu Kari said spam and viruses would kill off the Internet by 2006. The fact that you’re looking at this website now means Kari was wrong.

The point is that even the sharpest innovators and entrepreneurs have often had a hard time seeing how the next hurdle in the Internet’s growth would be overcome–only to be surprised by some new resource, technology, or business idea that emerges in the nick of time. (In both 1996-97 and 2005-2006, Internet service providers responded in part by adding more bandwidth to their networks.)

But will that pattern hold out forever? The dam-breaking success of YouTube and Apple’s iTunes Video Store–neither of which existed prior to 2005–has unleashed a huge new flow of digital video on the Internet, and many consumers now spend hours a day streaming or downloading everything from home movies to live sports and prime-time TV series. Because video files are so large compared with the Web pages and e-mail messages that used to dominate Internet traffic, backbone lines are under strain, and backbone operators such as AT&T and Verizon and Internet service providers such as Comcast are facing new costs they can’t easily recoup, given the flat-rate pricing of most consumer broadband Internet access plans.

Hui Zhang, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who studies broadband networks, says that “2006 will be remembered as the year of Internet video. Consumers have shown that they basically want unlimited access to the content owners’ video. But what if the entire Internet gets swamped in video traffic?”

This time around, the Internet may be saved by the unlikeliest of rescuers: the builders of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. In the minds of many consumers–and many studio executives–P2P networks are still synonymous with digital piracy. After all, Napster, Kazaa, and other early peer-to-peer networks were playgrounds for copyright violators, who downloaded millions of music files they hadn’t paid for. But today a number of researchers and entrepreneurs are arguing that peer-to-peer technology–which allows network members to retrieve content by tapping into the hard drives of other members who have already downloaded that content–is also great for distributing legitimately purchased, copyright-protected music and video. It might even lessen the burden on service providers and content distributors.

By putting new twists on the P2P concept, businesses hope to bring digital distribution of movies, TV shows, and other premium content to a market beyond iPod owners and YouTube addicts. In August 2005, for example, Internet company Wurld Media, of Saratoga Springs, NY, rolled out a P2P platform called Peer Impact. Once users have downloaded the free Peer Impact media player, they can buy and download movies and TV shows (as well as games, radio shows, and music) to a shared folder on their PC. The twist: Peer Impact pays users every time someone else on the network draws that content from the shared folder. Members can use their “Peer Cash” to buy more content. (I tried Peer Impact’s service recently and found downloads to be fast and smooth. I was able to start watching a one-hour episode of the fanfic production “Star Trek: New Voyages” about two minutes after the download process began; the entire download took about twelve minutes.)

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