Essay: The Myth of Infinite Bandwidth

Back in the late 1990s I was often asked what I thought would happen if Internet bandwidth was infinite — what would that change about the Internet itself? Level 3’s (LVLT) recent decision to slash prices on its content distribution network and rumors of new multi-terabit cables across the Pacific have me wondering if we are actually getting closer to having infinite bandwidth.

But when replying to the infinite bandwidth question I was prone to posing a return question — what does infinite bandwidth actually mean? As an example, I would often say that infinite bandwidth meant that I could personally consume terabits of bandwidth at any location on the planet at any time without loss or jitter. And, since bandwidth would be infinite, it would be the ultimate commodity and free. [digg=http://digg.com/tech_news/Essay_What_if_Internet_Bandwidth_Was_Infinite]

I have often found that people who talk about infinite bandwidth lack a basic understanding of what bandwidth is — many think that if you have infinite bandwidth you can have instantaneous access to every computer around the globe. People often forget that the speed of light is very fast (around 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum) but nevertheless a constant. As an example, if you have infinite bandwidth between two points it’s like having a freeway with infinite lanes but your car can only go a finite speed. There is no congestion or traffic jam, but it still takes time to travel from source to destination.

On the Internet, a bit of data does travel quickly over fiber optics, but there are many different mediums and pieces of equipment between any given source and destination to slow things down. For example, from here in San Francisco it takes a bit of data around 320 milliseconds to travel to Bangalore and back, and about half that for a bit to make a round trip between here and London. Of course, on today’s finite Internet, these travel times vary with the time of day, the exact path taken and a thousand other networking variables, but I believe that these latency times are in the ballpark for most networks. Infinite bandwidth would not have this variability but would still be hampered by the pesky issue of speed of light between any two points on the planet.

Other than the speed of light issue, when people talk about infinite bandwidth they contend that accomplishing this on the backbone of the Internet (across network providers and between exchange points) is definitely feasible, but true end-to-end infinite bandwidth is hard to imagine given the constraints of the last mile in many locations. While I agree that the last mile is clearly a current constraint to infinite bandwidth, I have some hope that some high-speed variant of Ethernet or a wireless technology will solve this problem in the not-too-distant future — just look at what’s happening in Tokyo and Seoul.

So, in my mind infinite bandwidth is possible. Some thoughts about what we could do with it include: unlimited High Definition two-way video streaming (not like little YouTube screens, but to video walls), immersive and lifelike collaboration environments (think Second Life on steroids), limitless file transfer and backup (no more burning data to DVDs), real-time photo sharing (grandmothers will love this), and complete data mobility for both personal and work information (regardless of what type of data you have, you can access it from anywhere).

As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” So we need to know that bandwidth will be infinite and we need ways to necessitate this technology soon. How do you think infinite bandwidth would change your behavior on the Internet, either personally or for your company?

Allan Leinwand is a venture partner with Panorama Capital and founder of Vyatta. He was also the CTO of Digital Island.

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