By Jamie J. Gooch
Remember that high-pitched static whine punctuated by the digital chimes that signaled your dial-up modem was shaking hands with your Internet service provider (ISP)? Maybe you doubled your speed from 14.4 kbps to 28.8 kbps at some point and were impressed with how fast Netscape rendered a web page. Then broadband arrived and wow, was it fast. But, everything is relative.
Nowadays, things don’t seem so fast. The average broadband speed in the U.S. today is about 5.8 Mbps, which is only slightly faster than the maximum speeds 16 years ago. While computing power has doubled every 12 to 18 months and storage capacity — both locally and networked — has become increasingly affordable, broadband has not kept pace. In fact, the price of broadband has increased for many, while broadband speeds are being capped.
Need for Speed
The static pace of broadband speeds doesn’t sit well with Google. If it hopes to move more customers to its cloud-based solutions, they need to have fast access to the Google-hosted services that comprise their digital lives. Google’s answer to the problem is Google Fiber, which it rolled out in Kansas City recently. Using fiber optics, the company is delivering upload and download speeds of 1 Gbps for less than what others are charging for half those speeds.
The lack of innovation among traditional ISPs shouldn’t sit well with design engineers either. Even though many of you have fast access at work, chances are you’re doing some of your work from home. Others are working in smaller offices that are using the same cable and DSL connection technologies as consumers. But while a fast connection would certainly be a convenience when uploading and downloading large files away from the office, and the many home-based engineering contractors’ productivity would greatly benefit from gigabit speeds, those are relatively minor benefits.
Engineering a Connected World
The bigger benefits to widespread, affordable, extremely high-speed access are the product innovations it would enable. It’s easy to imagine new music and movie sharing business plans taking advantage of the higher speeds, or new apps that pop up based on faster access to data in the cloud, but what about more “Jetsonian” technologies?
An Aug. 1 Wall Street Journal online article titled “Entrepreneurs Dream of Jumping on Super-Fast Network” profiled a few Kansas City start-ups hoping to capitalize on Google’s experiment. Integrated Roadways LLC would like to embed sensors in roads to transmit data about hazardous conditions via Google Fiber, and maybe someday communicate with self-driving cars. Another business, Caregiv, hopes to bring doctor-patient teleconferencing to the homes of the elderly, allowing medical professionals to monitor patients and provide online therapy sessions.
Many of the future’s most promising innovations depend on removing the broadband bottleneck. Imagine what huge increases in average broadband speeds could do for sensor-based monitoring, teleconferencing, online education, Internet-connected appliances, home-based manufacturing, telemedicine, simulation, crowd sourcing and more.
“Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life,” according to the executive summary of the National Broadband Plan. “It is enabling entire new industries and unlocking vast new possibilities for existing ones. It is changing how we educate children, deliver health care, manage energy, ensure public safety, engage government, and access, organize and disseminate knowledge.”
Just a First Step
To say that gigabit speeds lead to new innovation is an oversimplification. There are many challenges to overcome along the way.
Google Fiber is just in Kansas City, and Google has been pretty tight-lipped about any expansion plans. If we take a step back, we’ll see that about 100 million Americans don’t have any broadband — fast or slow — in their homes, and many countries have higher average connection speeds than the U.S.
Surely Google hopes its entrance into the market will shake the cobwebs off traditional network providers. Engineers should too. Even if Google Fiber never extends beyond the test bed of KC, it could serve as a wake up call that will lead to competitive offerings by other ISPs. It’s an important first step down a road that could help jumpstart innovation in the U.S.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.