For as long as history can recall, mankind has thirsted for faster, deeper, and broader connectivity with other sentient simians. At its most basic, way back at the beginning, human language enabled us to connect with each other, and eventually neighboring tribes and societies. The written word took things to the next level, and we all know the importance of the printing press and later the typewriter. Eventually the telegraph emerged — speed-of-light communication over thousands of miles! — and a few years later, perhaps the most disruptive invention of all time: the telephone.
Our undersea cables might be fiber optic and our telephony network might be entirely digital, but for the most part we are still living in the shadow of the telephone. We’re not going to belabor the point, though; we’ve talked about the history of computer networks before, and you all understand the importance of the world-spanning web of wires and how they form the backbone of the internet that we know and love. Instead, we’re going to talk about the future of the internet.
What do you think will happen when every home is connected to the internet via 100 or 1,000Mbps Ethernet or fiber?
Your internet access would be faster and lower-latency, sure — and yes, you’ll be able to watch 1080p videos on YouTube and Netflix without bandwidth concerns. If music, movie, and TV publishers still haven’t pulled their fingers out, you’ll be able to pirate stuff really quickly, too. Ultimately, you’ll be able to do everything that you already do — but faster and with more flexibility.
The problem with this conclusion, though, is that it’s based on your current mental model of the web where you are a consumer. As it stands, the web is basically formed out of two networks: a very fast network of data centers that host the services that we use, and a low-speed network of spurs that extend from the nearest data center to your house. Fundamentally, the big difference between these networks is symmetricalness: internally, each of the data centers is connected to each other at gigabit speeds both up and down — your home connection, however, is nearly always biased towards download speed.
As consumers of content on the web, though, this makes sense; a faster upload speed doesn’t help you watch videos on YouTube or download the latest episode of Naruto any faster, after all. This isn’t to say that upload bandwidth isn’t helpful — the army of live and life streamers on sites like Justin.tv and Ustream need a couple of megabits at least — but generally, it is download speed that we’re interested in, and as a result it is download speed that ISPs optimize their network for.
Inexorably, though, our home and office connections are going to get faster. There are already huge swaths of Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and other territories that are connected atsymmetrical speeds between 50Mbps and 1Gbps via VDSL, Ethernet, and fiber — and judging by the worldwide government-level pressure and funding, more countries are sure to follow. At some point in the not-so-distant future, then, we’re all going to be connected to the web at LAN-like speeds — 100 megabits per second up and down — and this, just like the advent of the telephone, will change the world as we know it.
Yes, symmetricalness is a word
You see, once we are all symmetrically connected to each other, the internet will finally become democratic, or at least 100 times more equal than it is today. You might be under the illusion that the web as it stands is democratic — that everyone has an equal voice — but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is, Google or Twitter or Facebook could turn around tomorrow and ban every single American from its services, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Twitter and other forms of social media have definitely made the web more democratic, but we are still just consumers of delicious, commercial web services.
If we all had symmetric 100Mbps internet connections, however, it would be different. Instead of storing your data with Google or uploading your files to Dropbox, you could store the files at home or in the office on a network-attached storage device. You wouldn’t even have to bother with long-term, offline backups, either: if everyone’s connected at 100Mbps or faster, and we all have terabytes or petabytes of hard disk storage, then all you need is a backup buddy: you store your important files at his house, and he stores his at yours. In other words, you will have permanent, free, available-from-My-Computer access to every digital file you’ve ever created — try doing that with a cloud storage provider. In fact, with symmetrical web connections, the cloud would have a rather nebulous (!) fate indeed.
Then there’s the other web services: at the moment you use Gmail or Hotmail, but if you had a 100Mbps connection at home, why not host your own mail server? The same goes with streaming video: why not just store a ton of videos on your home computer and stream them to wherever you might be? Symmetric connections completely rewrite the rules of file sharing, too: just check out Sweden with its city-wide DirectConnect and FTP hubs with petabytes of movies, music, TV, and applications available 24/7 at crazy download speeds. They could use BitTorrent or Hulu or Megaupload, but why bother when you can get everything from your friend across the road?
With a symmetric web, these hubs will spring up all over the place — but unlike the ones in Sweden which cannot extend into other countries where connections are slower, these hubs will span the entire world. Instead of your entire life being represented by a handful of bytes in amongst Facebook’s faceless sea, symmetric connections will enable the web to become metropolitan. Your presence on the web will be your home. Rather than being virtually connected to your friends through a list on a social network, the symmetric web will fashion physical connections. Instead of uploading a file and sharing a link, you will click My Friends from your Windows 10 start menu and simply drag the file to a friend’s computer. Instead of connecting to a centralized World of Warcraft server with thousands of random players, one of your friends could run the server instead. Web servers, mail servers, chat servers — you name it, with a fat pipe to the internet, they could all be run locally beyond the reach of Google, Facebook, and even the federal government.
Finally, because this would still be the internet, you would be free to hop between these hubs. It would be like moving to a new city — a new, physical Facebook group — but faster. There might be gated communities, of course, and you might lose touch with your friends — but that’s how the cookie crumbles.
The end result would be a truly decentralized internet that closely mimics human settlement and society. There will still be nodes on the internet where more people congregate — the bars, clubs, and McDonalds of the real world — but for the most part, a symmetric web would let people hang out and connect with the people they care about, and ignore everyone else.
Of course, at this point we have to point out that Google itself is currently laying its own super-fast fiber network. Google, in its infinite wisdom, has either realized that the internet will eventually fracture into decentralized hubs and wants a piece of the infrastructure — or it thinks that in 10 years, even with gigabit connections, we’ll still be slurping down YouTube content and wiping our greasy chins with Gmail. Either way, Google wins: 100Mbps-to-the-house is the future, and if I had any money I would plow every last cent into the internet.