Because of their low speed, dial-up internet connections are considered hopelessly out of date. Yet switching to a faster broadband connection or even a fibre connection will only yield a speed increase for a short period. Faster connections also threaten the democratisation of the internet.
Surfing the net will always test your patience, regardless of how fast your connection is.
Telecom operators around the world introduce ever faster internet connections. Now that – at least in Europe – almost all internet users have switched to an ADSL broadband connection, operators have started offering VDSL (Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line).
The download speed of VDSL amounts to (a maximum of) 52 megabits per second (Mbps), compared to (a maximum of) 8 Mbps for ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line). Behind the scenes, fibre-to-the-home connections are warming up. These have download speeds up to 100 Mbps.
Bandwith consumption per user
However, the speed advantage that faster connections offer, is only temporary. Faster connections inevitably bring new applications, which eat up the extra bandwidth. The amount of bits that is being transported over the internet doubles every year. That’s not the consequence of a growing amount of internet users.
The worldwide network today numbers 1,245,000,000 users, only 159,000 more than one year ago. Consequently, the spectacular growth is mainly the result of an increasing bandwidth consumption per user. Every year each of us downloads (and uploads) almost twice as much digital information as the year before.
That’s not because we spend twice as much time on the internet, and also not because we watch twice as many web pages than before. The main reason for the yearly doubling of traffic is the growing importance of multimedia: music, pictures and especially video. Moving pictures need much more bandwidth compared to text or even pictures and music.
An example: all the text on Low-tech Magazine takes up 10 times less space than even the smallest picture on this website. Since video is nothing more than successive still images (about 24 to 30 per second), one minute of low-resolution video would need about 350 times more space than all the text on this website.
Faster connections do not yield faster surfing, but they do yield extra applications.
If today the internet would be a text-only medium, like 15 years ago, surfing the web would have become extremely fast thanks to faster connections. However, because extra bandwidth is being used up by heavier applications over and over again, internet users have to switch to faster connections continually to maintain the same speed.
If you hold on to your ADSL connection, in some time you will notice that the speed of this connection will become comparable to that of an old-fashioned dial-up line. In about 5 years’ time, even VDSL will feel increasingly slower. In short, surfing the net will always test your patience, regardless of how fast your connection is.
Instant video messaging
Fibre-to-the-home networks will not solve that problem. These connections, now only enjoyed by big companies or universities, are much faster than a broadband connection. But with that extra bandwidth, a lot of interesting applications become possible. Lots of people now dream of the distribution of high definition movies and television over the internet, or the transformation of traditional websites into three-dimensional virtual worlds like second life.
Other applications in the pipeline are instant video messaging, online home surveillance or massive online gaming. These applications are in the proportion of video to text: they will eat up a massive amount of bandwidth, or to be more specific: all the extra bandwidth that will become available.
Of course, this does not mean that faster connections are useless. They do not yield faster surfing, but they do yield extra applications. Some years ago, the streaming of low resolution videos was simply impossible, whereas today it’s hard to find a website without at least one video on it.
Advertisements have become much more visually active, which was also impossible some years ago. However, this evolution has a downside, which is mostly forgotten: it endangers the further democratizing of the internet and could even reverse that trend. Not everybody can afford to switch to a faster and more expensive internet connection every couple of years.
Distance to the switchboard
The deployment of new infrastructure at the edges of the internet is very expensive, because it has to branch off into every house. Increasing the capacity of the already existing phone line or cable network has its limits. The higher download speed of VDSL comes at the cost of two other factors: the upload speed (the sending of data) and the distance to the switchboard.
If the distance to the switchboard is larger than 300 metres, performance falls back dramatically. At a distance of 1.5 kilometres, the speed advantage compared to ADSL is almost completely gone - unless the upload speed is limited, but that’s not an option since it would exclude all kinds of applications. Building more switchboards (or intermediate stations) is the solution, but of course that makes the technology very costly.
Most websites will adapt to the ever faster connections, which makes them gradually inaccessible for people with slower connections.
Fibre-to-home is even more expensive, since it requires a completely new network on the edges of the internet, supplementing the phone or cable network. Some companies propose to use the existing sewer systems, which could lower the costs. That would mean that the streets don’t have to be broken up, which saves lots of money, time and trouble.
However, extra costs remain: a link from the sewer to the house will still need to be installed, unless you want the internet connection to come out of the toilet. More expensive connections not only mean higher costs for users, but also that users will be excluded from the faster lines, whether they can afford them or not: these networks will only be available in densely populated regions, if not they will never become commercially viable.
Faster connections in themselves are not threatening the access to the internet. The problem is that most websites will adapt to the ever faster connections, which makes them gradually inaccessible for people with slower connections. Today, most websites are impossible to download with a dial-up connection, because they have become too corpulent.
A few large pictures or a visually dynamic advertisement can be enough to make a download last forever. This is especially a big issue on a global scale. In lots of “developing” countries, the introduction of internet is years behind. If people have an internet connection, it is usually a sluggish one. But in the meantime, the websites themselves have adapted to the broadband connections in the developed countries.
Luckily there is Loband, a website which is specifically designed to keep the web accessible for people in poor countries. You type in a web address and Loband cuts out all images, illustrations and advertisements out of the website concerned. What remains, is just the text: a very sobering sight for the makers of dazzling websites.