This article was co-written by Jake Brewer and Joe Kochan, Communications Director and Chief Operating Officer for US Ignite.
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. But the question remains: what can we actually do with that kind of speed?
This is not a future question. The next generation gigabit Internet is officially arriving in cities across America right now. Google Fiber is up and running in Kansas City. Chattanooga, 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 journalists, telecom 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 health care, 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 short-sighted 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 U.S. 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.
- 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.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.