Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age – Is bandwidth a bottleneck?

The Pew Research Internet Project asked smart people the following question…

Will there be new, distinctive, and uniquely compelling technology applications that capitalize upon significant increases in bandwidth in the US between now and 2025?

Then they asked them to elaborate on their answers. A number of themes emerged – unsurprisingly – it was the last one that interested me most. (And not it’s not a typo, people just felt very different ways about access to big broadband.)

1.People’s basic interactions and their ability to ‘be together’ and collaborate will change in the age of vivid telepresence—enabling people to instantly ‘meet face-to-face’ in cyberspace with no travel necessary.

2.Augmented reality will extend people’s sense and understanding of their real-life surroundings and virtual reality will make some spaces, such as gaming worlds and other simulated environments, even more compelling places to hang out.

3.The connection between humans and technology will tighten as machines gather, assess, and display real-time personalized information in an ‘always-on’ environment. This integration will affect many activities—including thinking, the documentation of life events (‘life-logging’), and coordination of daily schedules.

4.Specific economic and social sectors will be especially impacted; health/medicine and education were mentioned often.

5.New digital divides may open as people gain opportunities on different timelines and with different tools.

6.Who knows? ‘I have no idea due to rapid change.’ ‘The best Internet apps are yet to emerge.’ ‘If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you, I would invest in it!’

7.Advances will be gradual for various reasons: Bandwidth is not the issue. The US will lag because a widespread gigabit network is not easily achieved.

You can check out the original article for the full answers to all of the themes. But to save a little time I’ll borrow from and paraphrase the report below on the bandwidth topic…

David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, wrote, “Video will continue to be the major driver of bandwidth demand. Video is not new or distinctive. There will be new apps, but I doubt that they will be enabled by increases in bandwidth. The exception may be mobile apps, which are highly constrained by cellular capacity.”

Mike Roberts, Internet pioneer and longtime leader with ICANN and the Internet Society, responded, “…Yes, there eventually will be killer apps dependent on gigabit-style bandwidth, but the path to them will be longer and more tortuous than advocates like to admit.”

Robert E. McGrath, an Internet pioneer and software engineer who participated in developing the World Wide Web and advanced interfaces, commented, “First, there will not be ‘significant increases in bandwidth’ in the United States. Increases yes, but not significant. … Investment is going down, which makes me say there will be no great results, since we aren’t doing the work to get them.”

Leah Lievrouw, a professor of information studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, responded, “… So we might well increase digital bandwidth, but use it to deliver and meter familiar, trusted (and ‘safe’) products and services, or variations on them: media content, college lectures, voice telephony, security services, public utilities, financial information and services, health care advice, and so on.”

Andre Brock …, “I am unwilling to believe that there will be ‘significant’ increases in bandwidth before 2025. My concern lies with the unwillingness of telecom providers to upgrade their backbones to accommodate gigabit bandwidth and their continued litigation strategies to prohibit municipal Internet service providers willing to install their own fiber. Without significant federal intervention on the lines of the ‘universal service’ provision of the 1996 Telecom Act, we will continue to see incremental increases in bandwidth (wired and wireless), overcharges for ‘4G’ access, and increased telecom lobbying against net neutrality in order to profit from ‘tiered service’ throttled access.”

David Bollier, a long-time scholar and activist focused on the commons, responded, “The question contains embedded assumptions that may or may not hold true: 1) that the Internet will necessarily remain open and nondiscriminatory (net neutrality); 2) that telecom providers will indeed build out Internet bandwidth in significant and roughly ubiquitous ways; and 3) that killer apps are the necessarily the biggest, most desirable outcome imaginable. …The most promising avenues involve social collaboration, especially in nonmarket, commons-based contexts—but most business models today presume some monetization imperative that can limit or poison collaborative possibilities, and bottom-up, self-organized financing and governance remain rudimentary and under-theorized.”

Doc Searls, director of Project VRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, agreed that resistance by entrenched interests may not stop the eventual development of the gigabit Internet. He wrote, “For apps to be truly killer we will need symmetrical high-speed (gigabit+) connectivity, so the speed of the network—in both directions—approaches or equals that of our machines and our home networks. I believe that will happen. The examples we already see in Chattanooga and Kansas City will go viral in other cities, despite political opposition by the incumbent carriers, which seem hell-bent on keeping old TV consumption and business models alive for as long as possible. Once symmetrical gigabit connectivity happens, offsite storage and computation in clouds, for everybody, will become a norm. So will personal control over how that is done. Once everybody can keep and manipulate their own data in their own clouds, the Internet of Things will be included as well.”

And some said innovation will occur regardless of bandwidth. Glenn Edens, a director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems within the Computer Science Laboratory at PARC, a Xerox Company, replied, “The new and distinctive applications will occur with or without increased bandwidth. Our current progress in increased bandwidth is pretty miserable; my home bandwidth has been stuck at 24 megabits (on a good day) for many years now. Mobile bandwidth is getting better but usage increases are still outpacing gains. Application developers find new and interesting things to do all the time—a lot new will occur even if bandwidth gains stall.”

This entry was posted in Digital Divide by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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