Looking at the Limits of the Global Internet

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If you were around for the days of 56k internet, you know how far we’ve come in just a few short decades. From waiting a minute to load a single image to being able to stream 4K video at 60 frames a second, the developments we’ve made have been astonishing.

A side-effect of this development, at least for those not acutely aware of tech-related issues, is that people tend to believe all internet shortcomings can ultimately be solved. With various concerns throwing wrenches into the equation, however, the truth is not quite so simple.

Busting Bandwidth, Looking at Latency

When looking at the contemporary internet, the biggest change has been seen in bandwidth. In 2000, the average person’s home internet operated at 56Kbps. In 2020, the average speed has increased to around 18Mbps, as explained by BusinessInsider. While this will vary by country and region, it generally indicates a bandwidth increase of around 320 times. Still far from reaching our maximum potential, bandwidth will only continue to improve.

Latency, on the other hand, is a very different story. Unlike bandwidth, latency, or the delay between a digital request and an answer, is far more restricted by physical laws. In simple terms, the travel time of signals through physical networks is largely insurmountable. Diminishing returns play an enormous role here, as IGVita detailed back in 2012.

This still holds true today, even with faster technology such as fibre optic cables. Operating at a third the speed of light in a vacuum, the addition of signal boosting slowdown, called propagation delay, limits our maximum theoretical performance. This can be illustrated through some simple equations.

Fibre Optic Tips

“Fibre Optic Tips” (CC BY 2.0) by EpicFireworks

The speed of light in a vacuum is nearly 300,000 kilometers per second. A third of this (our maximum transmission speed by fiber) is 100,000 kilometers per second. Even assuming a single straight cable running around the earth, this would imply a delay of around 400 milliseconds. In some uses like internet browsing, the issues from this delay would be minimal. In others, like playing online games, such latency would render the experience untenable.

The Legal Aspect

The other major confounding issue affecting the freedom of the internet is legal concerns. While most countries have no problem enabling the internet to begin with, few agree on specific sets of rules. This means that it is practically impossible to have the same internet experience in two different countries.

Otherwise, collective online agreements between countries have also made some progress in formalizing a greater set of rules. The EU’s GDPR is a strong recent example of this, having standardized a range of security practices back in 2018, as the GDPR website notes.


“GDPR – General Data Protection Regulatio” (CC BY 2.0) by thedescrier

With these elements combined, it’s clear that there are profound limits on just how much the internet can grow. While we can expect bandwidth to increase, latency is always going to be an issue unless we manage to circumvent the speed of light. The legal aspect is just as complicated, as there is practically no hope of all countries on the planet coming to one central online agreement. Of course, this doesn’t mean the online experience we have today isn’t fantastic, it just means that our faith in the technology’s growth must always be tempered.

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