What Does 2,000-Times-Faster Broadband Look Like?

It ain't just about pink pixels. From innovation to infrastructure, a new breakthrough from across the pond could have far-reaching, super-fast implications.

How fast is 2,000 times faster? Is that, like, Michael Johnson-with-a-rocket-strapped-to-his-back-while-running-downhill fast?

An idea that researchers at a Welsh university are busy working on goes a long way toward illuminating this idea--and what it means for the future of, well, nearly everything.

The Bangor University scientists have successfully increased broadband speeds by this amount using very similar tech to that currently in use, with limited cost impact. Let's count the (super-high-speed) ways this could change our lives.

First, a lightening quick history of Net data rates

Remember the bad old days of dial-up Net and then the arrival of fast, wired broadband DSL? Download speeds went from a snails pace tens of kilobits per second to all the drama of galloping horse, with speeds of hundreds of kilobits per second.

On dial-up you could check your email, have a chat via AIM or surf an often text-based web. But live online gaming could only work for slower-paced strategy games due to low speeds and the latency between moves being updated, and downloading even a low-resolution movie took forever (a 700MB film would've taken about a day to download).

With DSL broadband, image-rich webpages could be glanced at and surfed past because they downloaded in seconds and then you would move on and play World of Warcraft with thousands of other people in near-real-time. At typical DSL speeds, a 700MB movie could be downloaded in just about the time taken to watch it. Skype, and other streaming video services like YouTube were enabled. Pink pixel websites (ahem) that cause such consternation to some began to be among the web's most popular destinations.

Now home fiber broadband systems are available, and they offer speeds of hundreds of megabits per second, thousands of times faster than dial-up speeds. Web pages on browsers thus download almost instantaneously, and acquiring a gigabyte sized update to your computer's operating system is something that can happen quickly and quietly in the background. A 700MB movie file downloads in minutes, while you simultaneously check your mail or FaceTime someone.

The ultrafast broadband home

But the Bangor team's effort, which involves some clever signal processing and a similar kind of laser-and-fiber optic setup to today's home fiber systems, can pump up to 20 gigabits of data per second down the fiber. That's roughly a million times faster than dial up speeds.

As the BBC points out this is speedy enough to download a full HD movie file (not just a compressed low-res 700MB version) in just 10 seconds. This is one of the first reasons you'll be wanting ultra-fast broadband in your home, but it's only partly about current generation TV.

An iPad screen already far outperforms HDTV in terms of sharpness and resolution. And this precedes the next wave in home entertainment--4k television. A 4k TV screen is 4000 pixels or so wide, versus the 1280 of an HDTV, and that means it can show cinema-quality video. But thanks to this size, each frame of the video needs so much more data that it'll push even fiber Internet tech. That's where next-gen broadband will come in.

Ultrafast broadband could also make video calling a reliable full-resolution process free of glitches, and that could transform habits like telepresence. Why commute to the office, when you could have a live big-screen video chat with your office mates? And, indeed, 3D video could work if you needed a more immersive telepresence system.

Also remember that in a few years many previously inanimate objects in your home will be connected online in the "internet of things." My home already has 14 networked devices, each supping data over broadband...but that's going to increase when we're able to Google to find our car keys. Indeed at an innovation conference this week a Philips representative said he expected 50 billion devices to be online by 2020--six times the global human population. Ultrafast broadband would enable more of these devices to share your home connection, and also for more data to be sent to and from each one at a faster rate.

Business as unusually fast

While some may quibble about the absolute details thanks to the source, there are many studies like the recent one by network equipment maker Ericsson that correlate broadband speed with economic boons. This particular study of 33 OECD countries suggested that for every doubling of broadband speed results in economic changes that boost GDP by at least 0.3%, which equates to roughly $126 billion right now.

The reasons for this are manifold, including faster and more efficient data moving within a company's corporate systems, better real-time access to consumers and clients, faster payment processing and so on, and all of these would be boosted by faster Net. Wall Street is already busy chasing toward millisecond-scale trading, and it's impossible to quantify what benefits would arise from 2,000 times faster networking--though they'd be large.

Infrastructure fixes in no time flat

Ultrafast broadband solutions like this can also have benefits in behind the scenes technology you'll rarely have to think of--the giant mess of wires and computers that your broadband supplier needs to get data across the world to your home, place of work or smartphone. By speeding up data transfers, the Bangor system could lower infrastructure costs and thus indirectly lower end-user costs. It could also future-proof the system against the burden of installing more conventional servers and fiber to cope with ever-increasing data consumption.

When you read news like AT&T's plans to spend $14 billion on broadband and wireless infrastructure for current-gen tech, spread over the next three years, you can see how important a large-scale infrastructure saving could be.

Best of all, systems like that proposed by Bangor can be more tolerant of errors and low quality fiber, which improves network resilience and again can lead to lower costs. And the capability for using less machinery to achieve faster data rates has an impact on energy consumption and thus the carbon footprint of a network.

Innovating at the speed of now

There's something of a push for faster broadband access across the world, and even government bodies from Scotland to New Zealand are playing their part. This interest comes from perceived benefits in terms of economic stimulus and perhaps even better government 2.0 services. Labor party spokesperson Richard Baker has even been quoted as saying that Scotland's current plan is not only about boosting small businesses and better use of cloud computing for big data, but that "high speed internet was all about having a socially inclusive society, in which no one is left out of the equation."

But governments will leap at ideas like Bangor's because ultra-fast broadband could lead to more innovation... in a sort of "if you build it, they will come" style. We may not even be able to imagine what these innovative new businesses and services will be like yet, in the same way a dial-up consumer in the 1990s would have a hard time imagining Instagram.

[Image: Flickr user jurvetson]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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6 Comments

  • Tmc80tmc

    You neglect to say how certain broadband marketplaces are dysfunctional at best and at worst have people still with only ONE service provider-- and not just in the USA. Governments around the world have not done as good a job at promoting this technology the way they did with original telephone lines, power lines and such infrastructure projects that NEEDED government support, regulation & subsidy. While it's possible that major cities could get FIBER broadband at speeds of hundreds of megabits, possibly gigabits in the future.. they're not exactly falling all over themselves to jump at the chance. It's more like a baby staying next to the feeding trough of being a service provider with decades old tech and milking that far beyond what is societally acceptable. Much like breast feeding into adolescence.

  • Guest

    I would gladly even take just the speeds that places like South Korea and Japan have. I can't even watch a netflix video without  it cutting out and buffering. There's no infrastructure here...

  • PW

    google needs to stop what they are doing in Kansas for a second and look to these guys...

  • George Bush

     problem is.  The bangor.ac.uk story this article is talking about, is improving currect EU fiberoptics.  EU in mass has been on 50-100 Mb for over a decade, even poor countries like Romania.

    The US does not have this, and are still reliant on 20 year old cable / dsl technology, which 1Mb - 10Mb being the average connection speed.

    Google and the FCC 2015 challenge is doing the right thing.