The Need for Speed

by Doc Searls

I never liked the terms "upload" and "download". I think "inload" and "outload" might be better, just because they don't carry implications of subordination or unequal required effort.

As it happens most of our home connections are asymmetrical: much higher coming in than going out.Om Malik reports how poorly his "high speed" connection works for backup over the Net: approximately 90Kbps on the outbound, even though the inbound is around 9Mbps &#151 the claimed speed for Covad's ADSLs+ connection was "up to 15Mbps".

I'm not sure why his connection is so slow. Is all ADSL sucky as well as asymmetrical? I dunno. I've never had ADSL.

Up until '96 I had dial-up. Then from '96-97 I had Metricom's wireless Ricochet, which promised 33Kbps, but rarely reached that speed. Then, at my last house in the Bay Area, I got Covad/Concentric's IDSL, which (as I understood it) was IDSN tricked up to resemble DSL. There the deal was 110Kbps symmetrical, plus sixteen IP addresses. I ran servers out of the house on that speed.

One reason I was glad to move to Santa Barbara was much higher-speed Internet connectivity through the local cable provider, which was Cox. At first the measured speeds were as much as 7Mbps on the downstream and 1Mbps on the upstream. That was when Cox was using @Home's backhaul. Then they switched to their own and "improved" service by making it slower: 3Mbps down and 300Kbps up. More recently I've been getting their maximum, which is 5Mbps down and 1Mbps up. And it delivers as promised.

Here at my apartment near Boston, my Internet is provided by Verizon FiOS, which delivers 20Mb symmetrical service for $60-something per month. I test it often, and it's solid. I haven't set up an offsite backup system yet (not for whole drives anyway — recommendations welcome), but I have no trouble uploading full-size photos by the bucketload, both to my own Flickr account (now approaching 28,000 shots) and Linux Journal's photo collection.

Still, it seems to me that the promise of "cloud" and "utility" computing remains conditional at best for those with connections as bad as Om's. Which is most of us, I presume.

I just got back from Freedom To Connect, where speeds are of the essence. A 65Mb fiber connection was shared there, and the connectivity in both directions was rock solid. This was almost a New Thing in my experience of conferences. The week before at SXSW, a much larger conference, the connectivity was also solid, though not quite as fast. That was the only conference I've ever attended at which the cell phone service (by AT&T at least) was hosed (by an abundance of iPhones), while the wi-fi was reliable. Usually it's the other way around.

Among the many iconic moments in the movie Top Gun, the characters Maverick and Goose, heading to their fighter jet, have an exchange that goes like this:

Maverick: I feel the need...
Maverick, Goose: ...the need for speed!

I sense that the whole culture is starting to feel the same way.

Starting, that is. Most non-geeks still hardly care.

But the time is coming when we're all going to want the connectivity equivalent of hot and cold running water, of paved roads, of 100+ amp electric service.

Much of F2C was about what would be done with the $7.x billion devoted in the "stimulus" plan to "broadband" upgrades. Right now I worry that the whole thing causes a market distortion that might do more harm than good. Or, put more kindly, might do less good than the plan hopes for.

Still, I think that the demand for better service will grow. And the market, in whatever shape it takes (which right now appears to include many more "munis" -- municipalities), will respond with better speeds.

Because the need will be there.

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