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What Good is a Gigabit?

This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post.

By Jake Brewer & Joe Kochan

What do we get with a Gigabit Internet?

At 1 billion “bits per second,” a gigabit is 200 times faster than today's U.S. average of roughly 5 million bits per second (5 Mbps). But the question remains: what can we actually do with that kind of speed?

This is not a future question. This next generation Internet is officially arriving in cities across America right now. Google Fiber is up and running in Kansas CityChattanooga, Tennessee has had its network running through its public utility EPB for three years now, and many more cities, from Chicago to Red Wing, Minnesota, have announced “gigabit” initiatives in recent months.

As these new efforts in civic infrastructure sprout up, tech journaliststelecom executives, web developers and citizens alike have naturally begun asking what that kind of speed really means.

 But just focusing on speed misses the point by missing the possibilities.

The next generation “gigabit” Internet is not only about going faster, it's about completely changing how we approach everything from education to healthcare, as we transition to an Internet of Immersive Experience.

In the early twentieth century, many families whose homes were being connected to the electric grid wanted only light bulbs, because light was all they knew electricity could “do.” There was little, if any, awareness that electricity would ultimately power almost all the “applications” around us – fundamentally changing every single experience we have in our homes, businesses, and lives.

The same kind of transformation will be powered by the gigabit Internet, and it's shortsighted for journalists and policy-makers to focus on Internet speeds alone. It leads Americans to think “Gigabit Internet equals faster movie downloads.” This is why initiatives like US Ignite and projects that foster the next-generation of applications and services are so critical.

Essentially, when it comes to citizens and consumers wanting better, faster broadband networks in America: “It's the applications, stupid.”

Here are some examples of what we mean:

  • Instead of navigating to a retailer's web page or downloading an app, in the future, people will walk into virtual stores and pick up sample products, sensing their weight and shape with haptic devices.
  • Your local drugstore will not only be the place you pick up prescriptions, it will also be where you will go to “see” a doctor in a private “health pod” through the combination of secure, ultra-high definition two-way video, health sensors, and tactile feedback.
  • Instead of downloading a YouTube video to watch a course lecture and uploading homework assignments, students will enter digital classrooms where interaction with their teachers and fellow students happen in three dimensions and in real-time just like in the classrooms of today.
  • Traffic signals will adjust vehicle flow through a city in real-time, based on traffic congestion, weather, and other factors that thousands of connected sensors throughout a city will be able to read and analyze every few seconds.

These are all applications in various stages of development right now, and bringing these kinds of services and experiences to every home and business in America requires three components of next generation gigabit networks – not just a “gig:” 

  1. Extreme Network Smarts. Imagine having only one driving route between any two destinations, and not being able to pass slower cars along the way or go around a wreck. That's not too far a cry from what many existing Internet networks are like. Next generation networks being installed today have characteristics that let them adapt on the fly to the applications and usage patterns of the people and devices that are online. These characteristics can be delivered today via Software Defined Networking (SDN) and OpenFlow, with more technological developments soon to come. In a sense, these new networking technologies allow application developers to “program everything” – meaning that instead of only programming their application as they did previously, they'll also be able to program and optimize the network it's running on.
  2. Going Local (Cloud). Americans have (largely) embraced the idea of storing their data in one place, securely, on the Internet and accessing it from all of their devices. This “cloud computing,” however, is only the first step — many of the storage services we use on the “cloud” are, in fact, remote computers and servers housed in giant data centers very far from where we interact with that data. Instead of shipping our data and computational needs to a far away server farm, taking time and costing money, storing the data closer to the user in a city or neighborhood “local cloud” will allow for people to interact with their data more quickly and securely and eliminate the expense of shipping it across the country and back.
  3. Symmetrical Speed. Sheer speed is a vitally important factor, just not the only one. Next generation Internet applications require very high “symmetrical” speeds all the way to end users' devices – this means up to one gigabit per second in both download and upload directions. Many discussions forget about the upload side of the connection, but the Internet of Immersive Experience will mean we are all as much producers of content and data as we are consumers. Information needs to flow quickly in both directions.

The Internet of Immersive Experience will also require a different kind of thinking – let's call it “gigabit thinking.”

For as long as developers have been building applications for the Internet, they have been faced with a challenge: how to get as much data as possible to end users through a series of more and more restrictive pipes. The result is that today's web developers optimize their creations for speed, and minimize the amount of data that has to be delivered. Video streams are highly compressed, real-time interactions are buffered and delayed (think Skype or Google chats requiring you to speak, pause, and interrupt each other), and critical data is cached on our computers and at various points along the network.

Gigabit thinking means that instead of operating under those constraints, we can let developers start over and create something great with virtually unlimited bandwidth. Stop compressing. Stop buffering. Stream everything — data, video, voice — all at once. There are citywide and local networks in the US today where that is possible, and with some effort, there could be more of them.

Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, best described the historical context of where we are in the development of the Internet at the White House launch of US Ignite in June 2012:

“Build the next generation Internet, and they will come, but not without encouragement and a willingness to be surprised. In the 1970s, many doubted there were uses for even 50-kilobit-per-second Internet. But soon application explorers came up with remote login, file transfer, and email. Pioneers have since found new worlds in telephony, television, publishing, commerce and social interactivity. Today, while investing in gigabit generations of Internet, we are again sending out our application explorers.”

Many organizations, cities and companies have already aligned with this vision and signed up to be explorers. We hope you'll join us.

If you'd like to know more,  you might be interested in our next generation applications summit in Chicago this summer. You can register for the summit here.