2013: Welcome to the universal internet

Today, the internet is everywhere, and we're still getting our minds around what that really means for our personal lives and our businesses.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Ten years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started deregulating incumbent local exchange companies' (ILECs') broadband services. Shorn of jargon, that meant the telephone and cable companies were free to offer newer, faster internet broadband services. The FCC expected this move to bring tens of billions of dollars into residential broadband. It did. What they didn't expect was Netflix, iPads, or Google Glass.

Internet Everywhere
The internet is everywhere.

In 2003, many of us were still in the modem age of the internet, when 56 kilobits per second (Kbps) was fast. According to Jakob Nielsen's law of internet bandwidth, "A high-end user's connection speed grows by 50 percent per year." He was right.

Today, by content delivery network (CDN) provider Akamai numbers, the average American is running on the internet at 7.4 megabits per second (Mbps). By the National Cable and Telecommunications Association's (NCTA) count, "93 percent of US households today have access to cable broadband", which, for most people, is the fastest internet they can buy.

The number one use we're making of all that broadband is, wait for it, streaming video. Sandvine, a network management company, found that real-time entertainment now accounts for 68 percent of all internet downstream traffic during peak traffic hours, 9pm and 12am. The sheer volume of overall fixed line — cable, fibre, and DSL — internet traffic has more than doubled in the last year alone.

Specifically, "Netflix continues to be the unchallenged leader for traffic, accounting for 32.3 percent of downstream traffic during peak period." Netflix's only real rival is not Hulu, Amazon, nor HBO Go, but YouTube, which now accounts for over 17.1 percent of prime-time traffic.

Armed with sufficient bandwidth, they don't want to simply time shift their TV watching; they want video on demand —and they want it now.

So while the television industry is still trying to get a handle on how to deal with internet video, the people are speaking loud and clear. Armed with sufficient bandwidth, they don't want to simply time shift their TV watching; they want video on demand (VoD) — and they want it now.

Another unintended competition from ubiquitous broadband has been that all those high-speed cable connections are now powering up high-speed wi-fi access points. So, for example, Sandvine believes that YouTube is gaining traffic not because of its new longer-form videos or streaming live events, but instead credits the continued growth of smartphone and tablet use within the home. These devices "now consume over a quarter of all streaming audio and video on fixed-access networks."

An unexpected side effect of this it is that PC and laptop sales are declining. They're falling because we're busy buying the newest, shiniest smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the ever-popular Apple iPhone, instead of PCs. Thanks to wi-fi and 4G, near-omnipresent high-speed internet access has made these devices far much more useful than their personal digital assistant (PDA) ancestors.

Besides high-speed 802.11n-powered wi-fi, 4G has also brought broadband to many urban and suburban users. RootMetrics, a mobile internet performance tester, shows AT&T and Verizon 4G topping out in the real world at about 16.45Mbps, while cable can bring many people 100Mbps speeds and fibre can bring some lucky users towering speeds of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps). However, 4G is more than fast enough for many of us who are replacing our old computers with new mobile devices.

This isn't just tablet and smartphone fanboy talk. Whether IT likes it or not, the combination of mobile devices and high-speed internet users is empowering the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement.

It's also not just smartphones and tablets that are taking advantage of all this bandwidth. Google, with its Chromebook laptops, is trying to replace PCs with what, for practical purposes, is an entirely cloud-based PC. Given that Amazon's top-selling laptop is the low-end, $249 Samsung Chromebook, it seems they're on to something.

Ubiquitous internet isn't just about taking old content, video and software, into a new high-speed networked bottle. Google's forthcoming Google Glass takes it to science fiction.

Google, which lives and dies by the internet, isn't the only one that's moving traditional PC services to the internet. Microsoft, which was born with the PC and for decades made its living from selling you boxed programs such as Microsoft Office, now wants you to put your fast internet connection to work with its newer cloud-based software such as Office 365.

Ubiquitous internet isn't just about taking old content, video and software, into a new high-speed networked bottle. Google's forthcoming Google Glass takes it to science fiction.

With Google Glass, and the copycats that will follow it, you'll always be online. Information will no longer be at your fingertips; it will be a blink away. You'll be able to, for better or worse, record and broadcast everything you see around you.

Personal computing devices will have good features — you may never be lost again — but they will also throw out every idea you ever had about privacy. We don't know yet what all this is going to mean. We didn't see in 1993 that the web would mean that online shopping would be everywhere, or that magazines and newspapers would be on their way into history's dustbin. We really don't know in 2013 what universal, always-on personal connectivity will bring us by 2033.

Just over 20 years ago, the web changed everything about how we use computers. Today, the omnipresent internet is changing everything about how we live our lives. The proverbial curse goes, "May you live in interesting times." And, indeed, that's exactly what the 21st-century internet is bringing us.

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