Your Giga-Future

Posted April 15th, 2013 at 11:53 am (UTC-4)
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Do You Really Need A 1-GB Internet? Yes.

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Once upon a time, around the time I was starting college, the prefix everyone wanted in computers was “kilo.” Computer programs, processor speeds, memory storage: it all came measured in units of kilo, or thousands. 64 Kilobytes equaled 64,000 bytes of memory (actually, 65, 536 bytes, but lets not quibble) and it was enough. Of course back then, most computers still used MS-DOS and ran off floppy discs the size of a small plate while the Internet was little more than a bulletin board. But it basically worked and I was fine with it.

In time, kilo was replaced by “mega” – swapping the prefix multiplier of a million for just a thousand. Laptops sped up as micro-processors began running in Megahertz (MHz) and memory storage boomed with laptops boasting 40, 100, 400 or more MBs of space. Floppies shrank from plate to cup sized, and as Internet service providers evolved from phone-based telephony – complete with that unmistakable modem screeching (what ancient history sounds like) – to cable or fiber-based systems, Internet connection speeds began to move into mega bits-per-second (Mbps) territory, and it was, I thought, all that was needed.

In the year 2000, a younger version of me went computer shopping and, after some research, settled on the newest “new thing” – an iMac G3. Gone was any floppy access; my Bondi Blue iMac came with a sizzling 233 MHz processor, 32 MB of RAM and – shocking for me at the time – a whopping 4 Gigabytes of storage memory. It weighed a ton but it was cool and smoking fast, and I was convinced I would never need anything more. You could even connect to the web via a faster cable modem, but it still had the old screechy one on board, just in case.

In actuality, 2000 was right about the tipping point when small computers, and later smartphones, entered the Giga – or billion – era, and have never looked back. These days, my iPod Nano stores 16 GB of data and fits in the palm of my hand…and even that is five years old.  My home laptop runs with 4GB of RAM memory and nearly half a Terabyte – that’s 1012 – of hard drive storage, and I think nothing of it, except “how will I ever need that much?”

Apparently, I’ve learned nothing. Moore’s Law has become fact: computers speeds and storage are doubling around every 18 months. And with each new speedier processor and smaller data storage, our electronic devices become more nimble, more capable, and a little more like magic.

And now, Internet connection speeds are starting to catch up.

Google’s announcement this week that it will begin providing 1 GB Internet connection to the residents of Austin, Texas, pushes the U.S., and the world, one step further into the Giga-future. Streamed through Google Fiber, Austin subscribers would see their Internet connection speeds multiply 50 to 100 times, joining Kansas City (both the Kansas and Missouri sides) as the only U.S. municipalities with ultra-fast Internet connections.

Mobile phone can’t move anywhere near that fast, but they’re moving faster than they ever have. In the U.S. and elsewhere, 4G LTE mobile networks are coming on line; the “4G” refers not to Giga-anything but “fourth generation,” but these networks have vastly expanded data speeds and capacity.

Of course, none of this is free. In the days of dial-up modems, companies like NetZero could essentially provide your Internet service for nothing more than those annoying ads they put on. 4G LTE service is pricey and coverage spotty, and Google is hoping to charge some hefty monthly fees for it’s lickety-split connections. (And as it turns out, NetZero is still in business, but even they’re charging for broadband, too.)

But service structures all across the electronic front are changing. For example, a growing number of pioneers – “cord cutters” as they’re called – are opting to eliminate their cable TV service, spending the saved money instead on high-capacity web service to stream programs online. A few industry analysts have even gone as far to wonder if the TV set has much of a future, or if it will be replaced by tablets and phones.

The real point is that higher Giga-capacities don’t just deliver the same services faster, they will undoubtedly lead to new innovations that hadn’t even been possible before. There’s no telling what the near future will look like. The only thing I’ve learned over the decades is fast enough is never enough. And that is, by and large, a good thing.

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