Why we need to win the battle for an ultrafast Internet

Do you really think the ISPs are giving us enough bandwidth? Think again

Last week I discussed how Google is making incumbent ISPs look like fools. By dropping cheap gigabit Internet connections into homes, Google is upping the ante significantly, even if it's only in one market for now. Let's hope the ripples cruising outward from Google Fiber in Kansas City will be be very significant for the broadband industry and, more important, for society in general. Ubiquitous broadband Internet at those speeds would have a revolutionary effect on modern life.

I hear many people claim they "barely use" their existing broadband connection. They may have only 3Mbps or 5Mbps, perhaps up to 15Mbps, but they seem to think they barely touch those speeds; therefore, the 700Mbps-plus offered by Google Fiber is a waste. In fact, there were comments to that effect on last week's post.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Google Fiber puts the ISPs to shame | You'll never get Google Fiber -- but you don't need it anyway | Get the latest practical info and news with Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog and InfoWorld's Data Center newsletter. ]

To me, that's a failure of imagination. The idea that some capacity is so vast that it could never be consumed is nonsense. This is the kind of thinking that led to the famous "nobody needs more than 640K" quote, however dubious the attribution may be. It's the kind of thinking that led Xerox PARC to blithely part with innovations that later took the world by storm in the hands of others. It's the mindset that led to the concept that there was nothing left to invent, way back in 1899. Now, there are questions as to whether that quote was real or not, but Henry Ellsworth's statement echoing that same sentiment in 1843 is a matter of public record.

Modern history offers countless examples of new technologies that were considered to be "enough" at the time, but look downright primitive today. There was a time when an entire neighborhood needed only a single phone line and a house needed only one telephone, a few electrical outlets, or a single radio or television. Of course, not so long ago, people who wanted to use a computer would go where the computers were located, rather than have the computer come to them.

The false limitations that we tend to impose on technological advances only serve as higher-definition contrast to those advances when they appear. Where we shook our heads in wonder when the first terabyte hard drives were shipped, we now do the same when we see four terabyte hard drives. The same goes with smartphones, tablets, and most of the other technologies we rely on. As rapidly as we move forward, we still maintain a sense of awe at our ability to do so.

But broadband has been essentially stagnant for years. You could get roughly the same service several years ago that you can get now, except in many places the service is worse and costs the same or more than it once did. Broadband and wireless networks seem to be treading water at best and going backward at worst. Sure, you might see speeds of 50Mbps offered by your (only) cable ISP, but in far too many U.S. markets, that's an unobtainable number, especially in higher-density areas. Think about that for a second, and juxtapose it with what you were thinking when I mentioned telephone party lines above. How quaint.

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