As the volume of Internet traffic grows explosively, driven by factors like rampant demand for online video, a new question is arising: Who will get the bill for the mega-sized data-pipes of the future?

A panel of industry executives and analysts mulled that question and related issues during a keynote event on Thursday at the CeBIT conference in Hanover.

"One person's broadband is somebody else's narrowband. ... What was classified as broadband just a few years ago is definitely narrowband today," said Dan Bieler, an IDC analyst who moderated the discussion.

Observers have predicted that while the web's infrastructure is quickly becoming more robust, richer, higher-traffic content will accordingly help fill the additional bandwidth.

In fact, the amount of information created, captured and replicated on the Internet will grow to nearly 1,000 exabytes over the next several years, from less than 200 exabytes in 2006, according to a slide Bieler showed. An exabyte is a billion gigabytes.

The situation has led to tensions between providers of bandwidth-munching services - as well as P2P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing networks - and the network providers who build out the underlying infrastructure. The long-simmering "net neutrality" debate has centred on whether all types of traffic should be treated equally by network providers.

Nadahl Shocair, CEO of Boomtel Networks -- a company working on an Internet-based phone system, complete with its own numbering system and prefix of '100' -- suggested there is a fundamental shift occurring on the planet, one that goes well beyond a tussle over costs between related industries.

"Humanity is binding together into a complex ecosystem ... a connected, planetary community," he said, and it "keeps demanding better, faster and free."

"I think the carriers in about 10 to 15 years will turn into pure gatekeepers. They own the pipe, they own the network," Shocair added at one point. "Who will pay for this at the end of the day? The consumer will, in one way or another."

Frank Rosenberger, chief marketing officer of Vodafone, suggested something has to change.

"I think there are fair ways to distribute this cost between the benefactors on the one side and those who provide the benefit on the other side," Rosenberger said. "How many videos would YouTube have distributed if they needed to charge customers for these videos?" he asked.

Marco Boerries, executive vice president of Yahoo's Connected Life division, predicted a mutually beneficial outcome for service and infrastructure providers, and said his company already has relationships with more then 50 operators, including Vodafone. "When you have a partnership, everyone should focus on their strengths. Yahoo is not going to run a network or go into billing," he remarked.

"Yes, we have tough questions to tackle," he added. "The same questions happened with move from dialup to broadband. I am confident those questions will be answered."

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