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No bandwidth broad enough

Richard Adler, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. | Nov. 12, 2014
Our ability to communicate across distance continues to improve, but will being online ever be equivalent to being there? Should it be?

Average speeds for broadband users have also steadily increased. When I first began using broadband, I was happy to get download speeds of 5mbps, which was 178 times faster than my old 28.8kbps dial up connection. When I recently ran a test of my current cable-based broadband connection, I found that my download speed was now 33.7mbps, which is over 1,000 times faster than that dial-up link. And the bandwidth available to me is about to massively increase again: AT&T has announced that it will soon introduce its fiber-optic-based GigaPower service, which will provide speeds of up to 1gbps -- another 30 times faster than my current broadband connection -- in my hometown of Cupertino, Calif. (Someday, even 1gbps may seem slow: a team of researchers in the U.S. and the Netherlands just reported achieving a transmission speed of 255 terabits per second using a new type of optical fiber.)

As broadband has gotten broader, the media that it can deliver have gotten richer. Transmitting high-resolution photos is now quick and simple, and it's getting easier and easier to share video clips. Live video calls, once the stuff of science fiction, are now an everyday reality thanks to applications like Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts. While these services have room for improvement technically, they are a boon to people who are separated geographically and want to see and talk with each other -- like grandparents and their grandchildren.

Getting social
The powerful appeal of social media also testifies to people's strong desire to connect with each other. More than 1.3 billion people now have Facebook accounts, which they use to share all sorts of activities, thoughts and images with friends and family members. In fact, one of the biggest stories about the evolution of the Internet over the past decade has been its shift from being mainly a means of accessing information to a new way to connect with people. (Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014.)

The power of social media is particularly evident among young people who grew up with it. How important it can be in the lives of many teenagers was driven home to me when I heard a researcher from USC describe a high school student in Los Angeles who had forgotten her Facebook password because she never logged out of the service. While this may be an extreme case, the Pew Center reported in 2013 that 90% of people in the 18-29 age group use social media regularly, and the proportion of teenage users must be approaching 100%.

More than a game?
Another place where emotional bandwidth is high is in the universe of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as Ultima and World of Warcraft. These cyber-games have attracted millions of passionate users who spend large amounts of time in highly interactive, visually rich fantasy worlds working closely with others to pursue challenging quests. Even though these games take place inside fictional environments, the connections between people can seem very real to the participants.


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