By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
The need for speed
Those of us who have been lucky enough to work or participate in higher education over the last ten years have experienced the leading edge of wide area networking, in particular, access to the Internet before it became a common commodity in the commercial world. We've seen the network extended to offices, classrooms and dorms, and our network connection progress from a thick coaxial cable to a telephone-style connector attached to a thin cable. Network speed on campus has increased from a data transfer rate of around 56 Kilobits per second to 100 megabits per second. Connections to the outside world have increased from 9.6 kilobits per second to an aggregate 90 megabits per second.
Why this need for speed? The speed of a data connection determines how much data can be transferred in the specified amount of time (sometimes referred to as "bandwidth"). Even ten years ago, most information being transferred on a data network was in the form of encoded text, one byte or eight bits per character. These days, we are sending and receiving multiple digital images, sound clips, and even movies and video conferencing session. All of the latter types of content require much greater amounts of data to represent them in a digital format. Whereas a paragraph of text might be represented in 600 bytes of information, a small photograph might require 600,000 bytes. In other words, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Higher education networks are among the best developed in any industry, and have grown to be an integral part of the educational experience. As networks have developed, their use has increased and become more comprehensive, to the point now that whole courses, or even degrees, can be completed via a network source of information and interaction. High-speed networking is not a curious luxury of the higher education experience, but a strategic component of it.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
Those of us who have access to the Internet at home have not experienced the same tremendous increase in operating speed that we've seen on campus. Many people are still using a dialup modem to access the Internet, and for a variety of reasons, that connection speed is frozen at a whopping 56 Kilobits per second. If you have a reasonably decent memory (just three paragraphs ago) you'll realize that 56 Kbps was our on-campus networking standard of 10-15 years ago. We are expecting picture content at word speed. There are several alternatives to dialup modem technology, but they cost quite a bit more and may not be available in your area.
Same song, different verse?
You might notice some similarities in the
services described above. For one thing, upload speeds
are all limited to 128 Kilobits per second. This probably
not because of any particular rule, however, it is more
likely to save money for the company providing the
connection. Cable modem companies in particular prohibit
running servers from your home
To get any kind of reasonable Internet connection speed at home seems to cost about $50 (give or take a little). In some cases, like ISDN and DSL, these costs are still government regulated. In Texas and elsewhere, however, there is starting to be competition allowed for local phone service. What seems to be missing is a lot of direct competition between various connection technologies. In my case, DSL is not available, so I am left with Cable modem as the only choice for receiving a comparable download speed. I suspect that more direct competition would result in a lowering of prices for high-speed access.
The real problem, however, is that we
lack up-to-date technology in residential areas. The
phone and cable companies have been upgrading their
distribution networks, but the line to your house is the
same kind of copper wire that would have been easily
recognized by Alexander Graham Bell himself. Add a little
shielding from electromagnetic interference and you've
got your basic cable TV wire. These 50-100 year old
technologies have limits in our digital age. Houses are
already being built that have fiber-optic cables run
directly to them just like buildings on are college
campuses are connected by a fiber-optic network. But, not
all of us can move, just to get better networking. On the
other hand, I can think of worse reasons to move.