The internet needs a massive upgrade to keep up with the demands of YouTube, billions of emails and wireless access, according to a new study.

If the network that carries internet traffic were a highway, it would be as if every car owner, "rushed out and traded in their cars for massive 20-wheel trucks," stated the report from University of California-San Diego Professor Michael Kleeman, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication.

In the report, titled 'Point of Disconnect', Kleeman writes that there needs to be a massive expansion of network capacity in the United States, and even though network operators are making those investments, it still may not be enough to keep up with demand.

The issue of users placing higher demands on the web's infrastructure has also been brought to the fore in the UK, where video-on-demand services from the likes of the BBC, with its new iPlayer service, and Channel 4 are causing concern for ISPs.

The US report also calls for greater use of compression technology, especially for large video files, to reduce demands on the network. Kleeman noted that the number of new videos uploaded daily to YouTube jumped to 65,000 at the beginning of this year from 20,000 at the beginning of 2006, and that one minute of video requires 10 times as much bandwidth as a voice phone call.

Network capacity wasn't an issue in the early days of the internet in the 1990s because it mostly consisted of people sending emails or transferring files. And with early dial-up connections, users accepted latency and slow web-page downloads, the report states.

But with the internet now carrying voice calls, video, web pages, emails, music downloads and trillions more bits of information, traffic slows down if the highway isn't widened.

The USC study is one of a number of academic endeavours to rethink the internet.

The report calls for 'triaging' network traffic to determine which traffic deserves priority. For instance, voice call packets should have priority over emails because a phone call can't be interrupted by network delays, while an email can arrive a few seconds later.

The economic consequences of not adding capacity can be significant, Kleeman states. If the network remains slow, consumers will be less likely to use the internet to download music, shop online or view web-based advertising.

"Unless we ensure an adequate supply of quality bandwidth at reasonable prices, many current and future business models will be stranded, which will have serious implications for economic growth and national competitiveness in the internet sector," Kleeman writes.