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Peer-to-Peer File Sharing Usurped by Streaming Video

The growth of file-sharing traffic has tailed off, but streaming video continues to expand.
October 14, 2009

Peer-to-peer traffic is shrinking at a dramatic rate, according to a report on Internet traffic trends released this week. At the same time, streaming video and direct downloads are exploding in popularity. The figures suggest that the entertainment industry’s battle against illegal file trading has taken a toll, but some experts say that users may simply be turning to more user-friendly methods of obtaining media content.

The report was jointly released by the University of Michigan, the nonprofit research corporation Merit Network, and the Internet-traffic-monitoring company Arbor Networks. Researchers at the three organizations had collaborated on measuring traffic across about one-third of the Internet over a two-year period. Arbor collected much of the anonymized data from more than 100 Internet service providers in 17 countries.

“Over the last two years, peer-to-peer has collapsed,” says Craig Labovitz, chief scientist for Arbor Networks. The report’s findings show that peer-to-peer has gone from 4 percent of all Internet traffic to about half a percent. At the same time, streaming video has been exploding–the report estimates that 10 percent of all Web traffic is streaming video, making this the fastest-growing class of Internet applications identified by the researchers.

Labovitz says it’s difficult to know for sure what caused peer-to-peer traffic to decline so dramatically. However, as legitimate video sites such as Hulu have proliferated, he believes that many consumers have found it easier to obtain movies and TV shows via these sites, instead of using peer-to-peer file-sharing tools. “It’s far more convenient and faster,” he says. “It used to be the case that to watch a movie, you had to wait eight hours for your peer-to-peer to seed. And now you can go to one of these sites and watch a movie in real time in [high definition] via streaming.”

Doug Knopper, cofounder and co-CEO of video-advertising company FreeWheel, says that the report’s results are in line with trends observed by his company. He says, “If you’re reasonably certain that the official, authorized, online streaming version in its pristine form, coming from its content creator or an authorized distributor, is easy to download, then why wouldn’t you do that as opposed to going to some shady site where you’re not really sure what you’re getting?”

But other experts point out that peer-to-peer file sharing is unlikely to disappear. Hendrik Schulze, chief technology officer of ipoque, a German-based provider of Internet traffic management and analysis, says that his company has also observed a decline in the percentage of peer-to-peer traffic. However, he notes that this doesn’t mean there’s less peer-to-peer traffic–it simply isn’t growing as fast as other Internet applications. According to his company’s figures, peer-to-peer protocols still account for the majority of traffic in the regions ipoque monitors. The company measures traffic in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, but has no data on North America.

Peer pressure: A report released this week found a sharp decline in peer-to-peer Internet traffic over the last two years. This graph shows that decline.

Schulze thinks that peer-to-peer’s slower growth is partly the result of crackdowns on copyright infringement, particularly in Europe. However, he says peer-to-peer has also taken a hit in regions where there is no significant effort to stop illegal downloads. In those cases, he says, peer-to-peer may be growing more slowly because other platforms are easier to use. For example, Schulze says, some platforms stream full, high-definition video over ordinary Internet protocols.

Schulze doesn’t think the change in traffic patterns necessarily means that people are switching to legal methods of obtaining media content. “It’s hard to say, with no numbers to prove it,” he says. But he notes that many of the streaming and direct-download sites he has encountered also host copyrighted material.

However users are getting their video, most experts agree that the trend is for more and more of it to be flowing through the Internet. Atul Bhatnagar, CEO of Ixia, a company that tests Internet infrastructure, says, “In the future, the Internet is going increasingly real time and multimedia.” He notes that consumers are getting more video online not only because of an increase in bandwidth and streaming sites, but because consumer hardware is now making it easier to access content on the Internet.

Devices such as Internet-connected DVD players “could have a tremendous effect on traffic,” Bhatnagar says.

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