A few weeks ago I talked to a guy who has gigabit fiber at his home. There aren’t many people who have this service today, but with all of the announcements being made by Google, AT&T and others there are going to be a lot more of them over the next few years. My discussion with him has made me think about whether people really need gigabit fiber.
The guy I was talking to is one of the technical people working for CSpire, the group that is bringing gigabit fiber to Mississippi. I quizzed this guy about his gigabit experience. He admitted that his PC wasn’t really capable of a gigabit throughput and he is thinking of finding one that is. But he was getting a good fraction of a gigabit in his home. He said that this clearly put the Internet at his fingertip. Anytime he went to search for anything on the web it was there instantaneously. He was particularly impressed when he would do an image search on Google and see thousands of images appear immediately.
In contrast to him I have a 50 Mbps connection from Comcast and I must say that I rarely feel like I am waiting. There are a few times when I download a very large program or video where I have to sit and wait a bit, but my computer lets those sorts of things happen in the background while I do something else and I don’t have to sit and stare at the screen while I download something.
My experience tells me that there are very few people for whom a gigabit is needed today. Maybe some scientist who works at home while connected to a supercomputer might need it, but the average person does not. But I never heard Google tell people that they need a gigabit today. They have always said that they are building a network for the future. And this got me to thinking.
Certainly there are no applications today that need that kind of speed. But we have lived through many upgrades in network speeds and what I’ve always seen is that when people are given more bandwidth that they always find ways to use it. I think back and remember when I had 8 kbps dial-up and thought that the upgrade to 56 kbps was awesome. I remember getting my first DSL which was probably something like 512 kbps and thinking that was the end all and be all. I felt the same way when I moved up to 3 Mbps, then 10 Mbps and recently to 50 Mbps.
And everywhere along the line, I first thought the new higher speed were great, and then within a few years they started to feel slow, because the web has always kept pace with the speeds that people can use. Web pages added video, got more graphics and freely included links to huge pdf files. And now everything is moving to the cloud. My PC is backed up all of the time. All my emails are in the cloud. And as we start migrating into the Internet of Things we are going to be sending a lot more data into the cloud.
Up until now my incremental improvements in speed have been between 3 and 8 times faster than what I had before. A gigabit is 20 times faster than what I have today, and I already have more speed than the vast majority of people. So it’s going to take longer for the web and the world to catch up to a change that is 20 to 100 times faster than what people have today. It might take a decade or even two for the average home to grow into routinely needing gigabit speeds. But we will do it, just like we have grown into all of the other speeds that we have ever been given.
So what concerns me is not gigabit speeds. I’m more bothered that networks are being built that aren’t capable of being upgraded to a gigabit. For example, there was a lot of money spent from the federal stimulus grants on wireless networks that can provide 30 Mbps speeds at best. While that is a fine speed today, those networks are not upgradable to faster speeds. Five years from now those networks are going to feel slow, and the small companies that built then are not going to have the money to keep them running. While many cities are going to have gigabit speeds by then, there will be many rural areas with much slower speeds and with networks that are crumbling, dying or growing obsolete.
After giving this some thought I conclude that we will find ways to use gigabit speeds and that there will be a lot of homes with that speed over the next decade. What we should not be doing is investing in networks that are not capable of gigabit speeds. Federal, state or other grants should not be used to build wireless networks that will feel very slow in less than a decade. Because once a rural area gets a wireless network, nobody else is going to invest more there. It’s a real dilemma for a rural area that has terrible broadband to choose between wireless and fiber. But I know when we look back in a decade that every place that picked something other than fiber is going to be kicking themselves in the rear.