Keyboard by Janine Morley

Research

Changing Use of the Internet at Home: Important global implications for energy demand

This project is part of the DEMAND Centre research programme and is designed to better understand an area of significant energy consumption undergoing ‘rapid’ contemporary change: the use of IT within the home. Whilst most households in the UK, as in many other developed countries, have had broadband internet access for over a decade, the nature of internet use continues to change. This is evident in the types of devices used to access the internet and their levels of ownership: shifting from 1 or 2 desktop PCs per household, to multiple, individually owned and mobile devices like smartphones, tablets and laptops. At the same time, levels of internet traffic to and from households has boomed.

These changes have implications for the energy consumed at home and globally across the internet. Digital consumer electronics, including TVs (which are increasingly connected to the internet) consume a significant share of non-heating-related electricity in UK homes (about 35% in 2015, according to official government statistics). Whilst growth in the electricity used by internet-connected, and other information, technologies within the home has abated in recent years, the electricity consumed by the internet beyond the home continues to grow.

This project asks: what is the role of everyday household practices in these trends? This leads us to ask how use of the internet at home is changing, and how that, in turn, relates to the internet infrastructures (data centres and distribution networks) on which this depends. In 2016, a household study was undertaken with 28 households in the UK. It involved a mixed-method design that included single interviews, diary-interviews, surveys, home tours and socket-electricity metering, across sub-groups within a sample that included households with and without access to superfast broadband connections.

Overall, the study reveals how the growth in household internet traffic is enabled by domestic practices, but accelerated by the design of online services, which are becoming more data-intensive and dependent on automated data flows, often invisibly and in the background. In particular, it highlights the role of TV watching. Whilst still far from universal or even dominant, there are many signs of a shift towards accessing TV content over the internet, through streaming or on-demand services. This is hugely significant for internet traffic; and suggests that communications and broadcasting policies could have important roles to play – both in creating but also managing the electricity demand generated across internet infrastructures and in the home.

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