I would argue that the single most important criteria for continued growth in our digital economy is the availability and abundance of high bandwidth connectivity. When asked about gigabit connectivity, most people think it’s overkill. But we all thought the same about broadband some time ago – who needs all that bandwidth? And we all thought the same about that thing called a “personal computer” – why would everyone need one in their own home? Looking back on both technological shifts, it’s hard to think about how things would have turned out without them. But before those changes happened, it was almost impossible to guess what they would have enabled. We face a similar challenge when thinking about high bandwidth connectivity.
But first, some basic definitions and background. I use the term “high bandwidth” to mean gigabit speeds or better (1 gigabit = 1,000 megabits). For example, a Time Warner Cable coaxial connection of 50 megabits (mbps) download and 5 mbps upload would not be considered high bandwidth. Also, fiber or similar gigabit network connections are still relatively scarce for both businesses and consumers alike.
Traditional broadband providers (mostly cable companies and telcos) have brought us a long way from the era of dial-up, enabling entire industries around video streaming to spring up (e.g. Netflix) that otherwise would have been unimaginable. But it is easy to fall into the trap of complacency in thinking that the TWC cable and AT&T Uverse connections we see around us today will sustain further growth in the future.
Predicting the future is very hard for a reason, especially when technology is involved. Extrapolating current trends into the next decade is a good way to make some predictions that will be hilariously wrong. But I think there is a distinction between extrapolating the actual technology (fiber, coaxial, microwave transmitters, etc.) and the general enabling resources for technology innovation (bandwidth, compute power, battery efficiency, etc). To say that we will need much more computational power in the future to drive innovation than we do today isn’t really anything outlandish to predict. And I would argue neither is the prediction that we will need more network bandwidth to drive further innovation, regardless of how it is made manifest in the specific technology (fiber, mobile, etc).