If you thought the internet was going to top out at 25 Mbps, you’re sadly mistaken. Like 3D printing, broadband speeds are on a kind of Moore’s Law of their own, speeding toward bandwidths that will make your head spin.
Over the last year alone, speeds have increased in most communities across the country at double- or triple-digit rates, meaning that we’re going to see an explosion in capability. What you can do with your internet connection today is nothing compared to what will be possible tomorrow.
Internet And 3D Printing
We’re already beginning to see some of the benefits of faster internet in the world of 3D printing. Collaborators are now able to work on intricate designs with each other via the cloud and upload vast amounts of information to servers. Today, there's enough room on the internet to share whatever design concepts we like, even for the most intricate models. With further improvements, real-time, shared editing will likely become possible, just as it is in architecture with BIM software.
The internet will also facilitate the sharing of open source and premium 3D models that people can print out at their local shop. Just as a consumer can order mass-produced items today with the click of their mouse, the same thing will happen in the future regarding 3D printing.
How Much Faster Is The Internet Getting?
Data suggest that average internet speeds across the country rise by around 25 per cent per year. The difference, therefore, between any one year and the next is noticeable, but not game-changing. However, when you extrapolate over ten or twenty years, the changes are dramatic.
At current growth rates, a 5 Mbps connection today could become a 433 Mbps one by 2040 - just twenty years from now. In other words, internet speeds could improve by a factor of one hundred in a single generation.
What’s more, the quality of connections is also improving. While fibre optics remains the most popular option, emerging wireless technologies may help reduce bandwidth and open up new possibilities. Fibre optic cable repair could yield to the maintenance of small boxes on the sides of buildings.
5G is probably the best example of this trend right now. The idea with this technology isn’t just to speed up mobile connections to the internet. Instead, it is also to reduce latency - something that has dogged both at-home and mobile internet services.
If you’re a gamer, you know how annoying latency can be. When there’s a delay between your inputs and the action on screen, it immediately puts you at a disadvantage. The ramifications of latency, however, extend well beyond the odd rage-quit. Delays mean that humanity hasn’t been able to develop real-time, critical technologies that rely on the internet.
Let’s take a bit of a strange example, but one that might apply here. Suppose, for instance, you’re riding in your autonomous vehicle, and you want to get to work quickly. If you’re stuck in traffic today, there is literally nothing you can do to arrive sooner, even if you have a car that drives itself. It’s parked on the highway just like everyone else.
But now imagine if there was a low-latency internet system that could coordinate all the vehicles in unison to keep the traffic going. That would be game-changing. Cars could move bumper-to-bumper, so long as the internet latency was low enough.
What's more, even if some cars were still human-piloted, low latency systems could help on the road. One idea would be to perform real-time transactions via the internet, paying the driver in front to yield so that you could get to work faster. It sounds like a crazy idea, but it would help those in a rush get to where they need to be, while monetising traffic jams for everyone else.
The internet, therefore, is getting both faster and quicker. It sounds like a strange thing to say, but there is a difference. And it has significant ramifications. 5G isn’t just about getting 4K video on the move. It opens up radically new applications, many of which we cannot yet perceive.
How Fast Can The Internet Get In Principle?
Right now, we have a fabulous technology called fibre optic. Many researchers believe that with minor tweaks and refinements, internet speeds could reach more than 255 terabits per second - or more than a million times faster than average rates today. In fact, investigators set that record more than six years ago, meaning that we could probably do much better today.
The problem right now is one of cost and roll-out. Connecting large physical cables to households and businesses across the country is a mammoth task and one that will probably take several decades to fully-realise.
But even 255 terabits per second isn’t the limit to how fast the internet could get theoretically. Beyond making larger and larger fibre optic cables, researchers are looking into the possibility of using electromagnetic waves and even light itself to communicate information. Here you really would be able to push up against the speed of light and use it to your advantage.
Transmission frequencies are currently the limiting factor. Companies are finding it challenging to develop devices that can pulse signals fast enough to take advantage of light speed. Elements in these systems would themselves have to operate at light speed to break up messages into ways that computers could interpret. Current research is asking whether UV radiation could provide a solution.
For all practical purposes, the physical upper limit on internet speeds is virtually limitless. It still isn’t clear how fast things can get, but it is likely to be several orders of magnitude faster than 255 terabits. And that figure assumes that light is the best method of communicating information. If quantum technology takes off and computing departs from classical physics, then that could be a whole new ball game.
So if your internet sometimes feels a little slugging, take heart: it won’t always be this way!