This hit me as kind of interesting when I realized it — the coming 5G cell phone speeds will be identical to every previous cell technology (4G, 3G, etc) that came before it. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, so there’s no getting any “faster”. The difference is in the throughput, or the amount of data being carried along those waves.
It reminds me of the old joke in computer science that says “never underestimate the bandwidth of a truck full of tapes“. In other words, if you work it out to a “MB per sec” kind of number, a truck full of backup tapes might average a pretty good number.
Using a more current example, you can buy a 1TB Micro SD card and it weighs around 250mg. A semi truck can hold around 40,000lbs, so that means it could carry 72,574,780 of those cards, or around 72 Exabytes of data. That’s a lot!
If you were to drive that truck from Georgia to mid-Michigan (a journey I’ve made a few times), it’d take around 12 hours, which is 43,200 seconds. That means, on average, you delivered around 1.7 Petabyes/sec, or more than a million times faster than a fiber connection could manage!
Of course, the latency (the time between requests) would be nearly 24 hours (as opposed to the fraction of a second on a typical internet connection), making this clearly not a useful thing.
Shockingly, Google actually does this kind of thing for some data transfers, when a company needs to move an immense amount of data onto Google’s cloud. In some cases it’s faster to ship the hardware to Google than to transfer it over the internet, so that’s what they do!
Why satellite internet can never be “fast”
This also highlights the issue with satellite internet. Going back to my original example of driving the truck to Michigan, while the average speeds are insane, you’d still be waiting 24 hours between trucks for each request you make.
With traditional satellite internet, it’s the same problem. They can potentially provide a ton of bandwidth, but the few seconds that it takes for each round trip can add up. Even with data travelling at the speed of light, it takes a couple of seconds to reach a satellite and come back. A typical webpage is made up of dozens or hundreds of files (this page you’re reading is around 120 files), so that back and forth can add up a lot.
Elon Musk is trying to solve that with a low-orbit satellite internet solution, which cuts that latency down to almost nothing. It solves most of the issues of traditional satellite internet, with the big caveat of needing many more satellites to make it work. Eventually, Musk hopes to have 42,000 of his satellites in space to create this network.
The speed of light is just too slow
In the end, for some things, the speed of light just isn’t fast enough. There are some theories about sending data faster than light, but they seem unlikely to ever come to fruition.
For now, we can be thankful for people like Elon Musk that are working to reduce distances and keep things fast.
If you ever need to send a huge amount of data somewhere, though, you can always consider using a truck full of tapes.