No medium has changed our lives as profoundly as the Internet. In the future it will continue to redefine our everyday life of work, mobility, consumption and leisure. In our series “The Wired City” we take a look at the opportunities and risks that come along with the Internet. In the first part of the series we turn to the question: “Where is the nearest Internet access really?”
Of course most people in the western world have Internet access at home. There will also be WiFi in some café or other round the corner – otherwise it’s not a trendy café. In the subway there are sometimes difficulties with getting a signal and the speed of data transfer. To make up for that, some cars can now turn into traveling WiFi hotspots thanks to built-in UMTS receivers. And in the office nothing can happen without Internet nowadays. But, as the name says, we still need a hotspot for wireless surfing. Wouldn’t it be great if Internet were freely available for us as a matter of course, anytime, anywhere?
Online, anytime and anywhere
In the context of the Audi Urban Future Summit in 2011 Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of the US edition of the technology magazine Wired, put forward the following hypothesis: “‘I drove my car to work.’ – Every single part of this sentence will be ridiculous to my children: ‘I drove’ – The idea that cars need to be driven will seem archaic to them. ‘My car’ – The notion of ownership is also one that is going to change. ‘To work’ – This implies the notion that you need to go to work, that there is a location where you work. And that is increasingly not the case; people work wherever.” The prerequisite for Anderson’s vision is comprehensive Internet coverage, so that we are online everywhere and at all times.
At present we have two options for wireless surfing: via WiFi or via mobile phone networks. For both of these we need a receiver device such as a smartphone, a tablet, a notebook or a UMTS stick. There is no Internet without a signal, and no Internet access without a receiving device – that is the status quo.
The decisive factor is not only the availability of a network, but also the quality of the signal and speed of data transfer. For some applications that only need small volumes of data from the WWW, this is no problem. But those who try to open the Facebook app in the GSM network, the mobile communication standard most frequently used worldwide, get impatient with its painfully long loading times. It is even more difficult to stream music or videos below ground, for example in the subway. And this is in an age when Cloud services, internet-linked apps and providers of music streaming such as simfy are blossoming.
The path to free WiFi
WiFi service free of charge in large cities is an important step on the path to a democratically networked world. There are now several models for this, some of which still regulate access. As reported in The Japan Times, since April 2013 WiFi has been available free of charge in almost all metro stations in Tokyo. However, the service can only be used five times a day at most, and then for a maximum of 15 minutes. That should be enough for most commuters, and above all it is intended to be used at the stations during waiting periods. The free WiFi service is initially being offered until the end of July, and further decisions will be taken after that.
In China, too, ambitious WiFi projects are being introduced in metropolitan areas. According to china.org.cn, by the end of 2013 freely available WiFi spots will be established in Shanghai in 450 public places. In Beijing as well efforts are being made to provide free WiFi in public. Unfortunately the Chinese hotspots come with the unpleasant taint of nationwide Internet censorship. At the same time the South Korean capital Seoul has announced investment of some 44 million US dollars up to 2015 to make free WiFi available practically “on every street corner” in the city. And in the major cities of Europe, too, the setting up of WiFi is marching ahead. Passengers on the London Underground can now surf the Internet free of charge with the mobile phone operator O2 and the provider Virgin Media at more than 100 stations. The app required for this can also be used by those who are not O2 customers.
The path to WiFi with free comprehensive coverage for everyone in the cities of the world is still a long one. But it is not the only means of fast surfing while on the move. Thanks to the mobile telephony standard LTE, speeds of up to 100 MBit/s are now theoretically already possible with mobile devices such as the iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S4. This corresponds to the speed of glass-fiber networks. However, LTE is a premium service with charges, and will probably stay that way in the coming years.
Who is the fastest?
In order to let the Internet into our lives and open up new possibilities for us, alongside availability there is also the question of the speed of data transfer. Here Google plans to ring in a new era. The broad-band Internet project named Google Fiber is intended to make speeds of up to 1 GBit/s possible. Thus, according to Google, it would be 100 times faster than an average DSL connection and still five times as fast as the quickest current glass-fiber connections, which run at 200 MBit/s.
And what will fiber Internet do for users? It will definitely provide more convenience at home and new opportunities. Full-HD videos, online games and music services will be downloadable with practically no waiting time. Internet television could finally become reality and exploit its full potential. Several programs could be recorded simultaneously and stored either on a hard drive or in the Cloud. Naturally these luxuries will not be made available for nothing. Google Fiber at full speed is expected to cost at least 70 US dollars per month.
Scott Cleland, Internet analyst and president of Precursor LLC, a research consultancy focused on the future of Internet, regards glass-fiber technology as one of the main components for the next generation of WiFi: “The main implication of Google Fiber in urban areas specifically would be that it could in turn enable much faster WiFi mesh networks, the next generation of WiFi, just like Google Fiber is the next generation of wired broadband. Reliable, fast, un-tethered broadband for portable video viewing is what urbanites want. Thus the significance of Google Fiber is that it could be an important catalyst in meeting that video portability need in urban markets.”
At present Google Fiber is still being established and initially will only be offered in Kansas City (USA). Austin (USA) was recently chosen as the second city. But the rest of the USA and the world will have to wait a long time for the super-fast Google Fiber.
Relieving pressure, acceleration, efficiency
With all these plans for the future, intended to help more and more people to get a faster and faster Internet connection, one existential question arises: How robust is today’s Internet really? In the context of CES in Las Vegas at the start of this year, the international mouthpiece for forward-looking technologies, MIT Technology Review, produced the following headline: “Your Gadgets Are Slowly Breaking the Internet”.
And in truth the figures forecasted by Intel give cause for alarm. By 2015 the number of devices connected to the Internet is expected to rise to 15 billion. This would be a load on an unprecedented scale. This is why research is taking place worldwide on how to relieve the pressure on the WWW. One of the principal problems is communication of individual receiving devices with each other, which has reached almost absurd proportions. Today smartphones, tablets and PCs communicate with each other via Cloud services and exchange data that are scattered around the world somewhere on servers. This happens even if the devices are lying on top of a desk only a few centimeters apart.
One possible solution is called Named Data Networking (NDN) and amounts to a new Internet architecture. Here the user calls up the file name on the Internet, and no longer the IP address as was usual up to now. The advantage of this would be that files are exchangeable between devices, and the copy of the file that is on the nearest server or the nearest device would be accessed. According to the project manager Lixia Zhang, this would not only speed up communication but also lighten the load on servers worldwide, as today there are many data centers from which thousands of people access the same file. This relief for the servers would create a significant energy saving and thus save resources.
A further simple way of solving the problem that makes a contribution to easing the pressure is to enable data exchange and synchronization between individual devices without the Internet. Bluetooth is an example of this. However, the range and speed prove to be handicaps here. Those who are on the move and want access to a server or a Cloud therefore inevitably require an Internet connection. In the near future this will not change much.
New gadgets, new possibilities
In the future Internet will have to become not only faster but also more efficient. As more and more devices communicate with each other and exchange data, they will place an additional burden on the Internet but will have to make use of new ways of transfer that spare the servers. Who would have thought five years ago that we would be able to dim our lights at home using an iPad and control multi-media systems with a smartphone app?
Future gadgets such as a smartwatch and Google Glass will shake up our Internet habits once again. Then we really will be able to communicate with our car via a watch, as in the Knight Rider TV series in the 1980s, or have information from our surroundings beamed straight to our eyes, as in the blockbuster film Terminator. But all of this and much more will only be possible with a fast, stable and omnipresent Internet connection. And then the search for a hotspot and good connection will finally have come to an end.