Feb 3, 2013

Invisible Speeds

In Arkansas our 4G LTE device was getting download rates in the 20-30 Mbps range and I was wondering how it would be possible to hook this up to my workstation-- only a couple months later I'm wondering how we can have doctors conferencing with us in our living rooms.

What began as a question about how the internet works is now a fascination for me with why the internet isn't doing more-- an incredible spectrum of possibilities that can help address seemingly unconnected problems like pollution, the deficit, and healthcare awaits implementation. We're not counting Mbps here and getting whipped up into a baseless drag race for speed; this is an excitement over what happens when speeds are so fast that counting doesn't matter anymore.

Upload and download rates are only important for how much they limit what we can do. If you have a fast connection you can get to high quality content faster, and more of it. A slow connection means less is available to you and what does come through is compressed or stripped down. Content providers and programmers are spending a good deal of their time cutting down and squeezing their information into smaller sizes so it can reach the widest audience of connected devices.

As an example, an entrepreneur would not produce a teleconference software that would make talking to a doctor as seamless as having them in the same room with you because not very many people have a connection that could withstand it. Most people have to make due with slow service, and applications used over the internet have to be built around that.

But what if it didn't have to be that way?

When it comes to connecting our computers together we are accustom to asking how much we can store or how much we can send/receive, but what we're really after is a way of quantifying how much we can do. How long can I talk to my Mom and Dad on this data plan? Will I be able to see all of the detail in this documentary I'm watching on Netflix? Can I send you the song I made so you give me feedback on it? Can we share more and be closer when we want to? These are the deeper questions we're trying to get at, and when we're equating it to speeds we're really trying to figure out how much technology is forcing us to compromise. The effort to develop high speed networks is fueled by the desire to pull down these boundaries that data caps and throttled speeds create.

I often hear arguments from people that go something like this: they don't currently desire seamless high quality Skype calls because undemanding email is all they use. As long as Facebook is accessible, why would they need more? The answer to this is the same one we would find ourselves giving the early adopters of electricity who wondered why they'd need a lightbulb instead of a candle. First there was the lightbulb, but with a steady supply of power to every house there came developments like the TV, refrigerators, washing machines, computers, etc-- electricity is a platform to build on, and the internet is only different in that it could even be better that that.

What if a patient could schedule a meeting with their doctor from the comfort of their home without fear of not being able to see or hear them well enough? What if kids could pull up any piece of information on their school subject or personal interest and listen to, watch, or interact with it? What if instead of going into a crappy office to do your computer job you could do it from home and where you don't need to burn fossil fuels to build an office, run a car, or be away from your family? What about the things we don't know about yet?

The web isn't a new thing at this point, and the accomplishments in widespread collaboration, communication, and development we've made using it so far prove the inherent value. Saying that it should be available to all at a rate that removes limitations is therefore a no brainer. The only question left is "why isn't it here yet?" and that's what we're trying to answer.


  1. It isn't here yet because in the developed countries with good telephone networks we are still trying to make them deliver the internet, and they simply can't. The innovation will come in countries without incumbent telcos holding back progress to protect their obsolete copper assets. As long as we are tied to phone lines with contention and bottlenecks and ISPs getting overcharged for data transfer we will remain in the slow lane. People get fed up with trying to skype and only getting pixelated pictures. Doctors can't talk to patients without the patient having a good connection too, and many don't.

  2. You hit the nail on the head, Chris. The infrastructure is the core of the problem, but the energy and political capital needed to get a modern fiber network built hinges on the public understanding the importance of high speed networks. Education is key with this issue, but fortunately the internet has so many cool possibilities that the subject isn't boring. Telepresence, working from home, content from around the world-- it's great stuff!