Nemertes Research has once again warned that demand for Internet bandwidth will exceed capacity by 2012.

The study, which is a follow-up to similar research the company conducted last year, projects that the current global economic recession will only delay rather than eliminate the increased demand for bandwidth the firm predicted last year. Then, Nemertes projected that traffic growth would eclipse supply by 2010, but the firm now says it has adjusted its projections to reflect deteriorating global economic conditions.

Nemertes emphasised it was not projecting that the Internet will crash or shut down altogether. Rather, the typical user probably will experience Internet "brownouts," where such high-bandwidth applications as high-definition video-streaming and peer-to-peer file-sharing will stop performing up to users' expectations, the firm says.

During a presentation at an Internet Innovation Alliance symposium this week, Nemertes analyst Mike Jude said that one consequence of declining web performance would be that users would look less to the Internet to deliver their desired applications.

"More and more applications are coming online that will drive expectations for service quality even higher," he said. "I'm not saying that the Internet is going to crash in 2011, but that people's expectations are going to be throttled. People will stop going to the Internet for those services."

One big reason for the projected growth in traffic is the continuing emergence of virtual workers who work from home or in remote branch offices located far away from companies' central offices, Nemertes said. In particular, these remote workers "expect seamless communications, regardless of where they conduct business" and they "often require more advanced communication and collaboration tools than those who work at headquarters," including videoconferencing and web conferencing, the report says.

Another factor is simply the large growth in high-bandwidth applications for users to employ. More ISPs in the coming years will follow the lead of such companies as Comcast and AT&T trying out bandwidth caps that will charge extra money each month for heavy bandwidth consumers, said Nemertes.

Although Comcast now caps individual bandwidth consumption at a relatively high 250GB per month, average future users will easily reach or surpass that bandwidth limit as they find higher-bandwidth applications to use, the firm said.

"Though this traffic load is [currently] more than typical, it certainly isn't exceptional," Nemertes reports. "This type of usage will become typical over the next three to five years. The fact that Comcast's network is, by its own admission, not able to cope with such usage patterns is a clear indication that the crunch we predicted last year is beginning to occur."

Looking forward, Nemertes said that if this capacity issue were not addressed, the Internet will fracture into a tiered system where companies with the most money will pay for specialised network infrastructure that will ensure their content is delivered at higher speeds than non-favoured content.

This fractured system - where certain entities could pay extra money to give their content favoured treatment - is what advocates of network neutrality have been working to avoid by preventing ISPs from discriminating against certain types of content.

The Nemertes report gloomily concluded that although the Internet would not shut down entirely, it would experience a dramatic slowdown in innovation because "new content and application providers will be handicapped by the relatively poorer performance of their offerings vis-à-vis those created by the established players."