Five years ago, Internet traffic was, for the most part, managed by tier 1 providers like AT&T, Verizon, Level 3 Communications and Global Crossing, all of which connected to thousands of tier 2 networks and regional providers. Today, that has changed. Now, instead of traffic being distributed among tens of thousands of networks, only 150 networks control some 50% of all online traffic. Among these new Internet superpowers, it's no surprise to find Google listed. In fact, the search giant accounts for the largest source (6%) of all Internet traffic worldwide.

This data comes from a new report put out by Arbor Networks, who has just completed a two-year study of 256 exabytes of Internet traffic data, the largest study of global traffic since the start of the commercial Internet in the mid-1990's.

"Hyper Giants" Rule Today's Internet

The biggest trend to come out of Arbor Networks' report is clearly that of the Internet's consolidation. Today's Internet is "flatter" and "more densely connected" than ever before, reveals Arbor Networks' Chief Research Officer Danny McPherson. Not only is Google the largest traffic source, there are only 30 large companies in addition to Google and including sites like Facebook, Microsoft and YouTube which now account for a disproportionate 30% of all Internet traffic.

According to Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Arbor Networks, this shift represents the Internet's move into a second phase where it's no longer "all about contacting websites." Rather, "over the past two years larger organizations have been buying up the smaller websites and by July 2009, 30 per cent of the internet was owned by a few large sites." The acquisitions, the result of billions of dollars spent by large companies snapping up smaller ones, has created a new Internet core of "hyper giants," a coin termed by the report.

The other companies making the list of Internet giants include names like Akamai, Limelight, BitGravity, Highwinds, and Gravity - hardly household names, and certainly not big telco providers. Instead, these content delivery networks (CDNs), are the new Internet backbone that help move large amounts of data across the web.

So Long P2P, Hello Streaming Media

Consolidation is not the only trend revealed by the new findings, however. The report also discovered a sharp decline in peer-to-peer traffic, which only two years prior peaked at 40% of all traffic worldwide. Today, while still a hefty number, P2P traffic has dropped down to 18%. Why the change? For the most part, the file-sharing that took place on networks like Limewire and Napster back in the late 90's and early 2000's, has now been largely replaced by streaming video thanks to to sites like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix. Given easier and less technical ways of accessing media, consumers have begun to shift away from the headache of P2P to these new and often free or ad-supported sites. Today, as much as 20% of web traffic is video, Labovitz estimates.

As far as Internet traffic in general, more than half (52%) is web-based, up from 42% in 2007. The remaining traffic comes from email and private networks.

A "Dramatic" Shift?

"Saying the Internet has changed dramatically over the last five years is cliché - the Internet is always changing dramatically," notes Labovitz. "However, over the course of the last five years, we've witnessed the start of an equally dramatic shift in the fundamental business of the Internet." He adds, "as content is getting faster and better quality it will change the face of the internet."