Remember when dial-up was the only way to connect to the internet? A lot of people still use it, but most Americans can now access broadband. If not at home, then at work or school or even the local library.
Today's broadband is great--we can do so much more online, like download music and watch videos. But a few hundred universities and other institutions are working on a project called Internet2, and they showed us we've only seen the tip of the iceberg.
The screech of the modem is a sound we used to hate. SCAD student Joe Dorsey's reaction? "Ugh. Just how slow it's going to be, and just sitting there and waiting all the time."
"Forever sitting there bored," recalled fellow student Nina Zeininger. "Or I would honestly bring in a book, and you know, I'd wait for the computer to dial up onto the internet. And I'd just sit there and read and wait for the screen to show up."
Surfing the web has come a long way, and we rely on it more than ever. "Like my younger brother, who's three years younger than me," said Zeininger. "It's not that much of age difference, but I'm not really sure he would be able to exist if he didn't have the internet."
Today's broadband is measured in megabits per second or Mbps, a whole order of magnitude faster than the fastest dial-up modem at 56 kilobits per second, or Kbps.
"I like to show people, my parents, what I've been doing at school," said Dorsey. "So I'll send my dad files and videos I've done. It's something you couldn't do with dial-up."
But researchers at Georgia Tech call that life in the slow lane.
"I think that the definition of broadband needs to be really really upped, we need to up the ante for bandwidth that we want to take to the home," said Dr. Ron Hutchins, chief technology officer at Georgia Tech's Atlanta campus. "My current definition of broadband is a gigabit [per second]. I want a gigabit to my home. Not a meg and a half or a meg. I want a gigabit."
As part of the national Internet2 project, Hutchins is helping to lay the groundwork for tomorrow's internet.
"More so than what's affecting the consumer in their homes today, Internet2 is affecting the networking industry," Dr. Hutchins told us. "Over a period of time, you'll see benefit from that."
He was talking about speed, thanks to the high-capacity fiber-optic infrastructure of Internet2. Just how fast is it? A standard CD can hold about 650 megabytes of information. To download all that over cable or DSL--figuring a mean downstream of 3Mbps--would take about half an hour. Over Internet2--which transfers data at 10Gbps--it would only take about half a second.
A practical application for all that bandwidth? Take the streaming video of stories we put on wtoc.com. You'll notice the quality is not quite what we'd use for broadcast, and that's because we have to compress the video to stream it over today's internet. On the internet of tomorrow, we're not going to have to compress the video.
"Across the scale from typing to high-quality, low-latency video," said Dr. Hutchins. "That's where I think we're headed." While such video is already in use across Internet2's massive bandwidth, Dr. Hutchins projects it will trickle into our homes over time as industry develops products and services consumers will be willing to pay for.
Today, Internet2 is only available at participating institutions, who use it for research and real-time communications among themselves. Scientists, for example, can share massive datasets and complex computer models across the country quickly over Internet2.
But internet service providers are planning ahead for a time when there will be demand for super broadband in the home. BellSouth, for example, installs fiber-optic cable at new developments around Savannah.
"The plan is to make sure that whatever we put in the ground today and take to the house has the capacity of serving any kind of bandwidth requirements for any kind of services that we're going to be coming out with in the future," explained the company's Ethan Frederick.
Some of those services will come from today's Internet2 users--students and engineers working on ways to manage and get the most out of all that bandwidth.
"They're going to leave here and say, 'I want that,'" said Dr. Hutchins of Georgia Tech's students. "They're going to start companies and say, 'I want that level of bandwidth. I want that access, because I saw the benefit from it.' I think that's the biggest push.
"Internet2 has been a playground for some of the top engineers in companies around the country," he added.
And one day, we'll all get to play. As far as when we'll see super broadband in our homes, that's going to happen gradually. Local service providers increase the bandwidth they offer now and again as demand goes up. Both Comcast and BellSouth currently offer maximum downstreams of 6Mbps, double earlier offerings.
Future services like broadcast-quality video online are likely to feed the demand.
More on the Internet2 project online at: www.internet2.edu.