The week of September 21, 2014

Inside Google’s ambitious plan to change the Internet forever

By Aaron Sankin

Try to paint a mental picture of what the Internet looks like running through the broadband cables to and from your home. If you’re like me, this image probably involves electrical signals zooming in and out at lightning speed. But that picture could probably use a tweak: The signals going into your home should be traveling at a speed drastically different from the ones headed out.

For the overwhelming majority of residential broadband services around the world, upload and download speeds are far from equal. According to online connectivity information service NetIndex, average global download speeds are twice as fast as upload speeds. In the United States, the gap is even bigger, with downloads clocking in at nearly 30 megabits per second, and uploads only hitting about 9 mbps. In certain instances, the differential can be as large as a factor of 10.

The reason for this situation is relatively straightforward: Most Internet users download far more than they upload. Streaming video from Netflix or YouTube sucks in vastly more data through broadband pipes than sending a tweet pushes out.

As a result, Internet service providers (ISPs) have, by choice, largely configured their networks to fit this structure of high download speeds and comparatively low upload speeds. Yet in recent years, there’s been a concerted push by a collection of ISPs, Internet advocacy nonprofits, government agencies, and application developers to even things out with symmetrical bandwidth, allowing users to send out information just as quickly as they receive it.

That forces the question: If we as a society had access to blazing-fast upload speed, what could we do with it? And how would it change the Web as we know it?

It’s not crazy. Many major tech giants and service providers are asking the same question.

The most high-profile advocate of symmetric bandwidth is Google, whose Fiber broadband project brought gigabit upload and download speeds to Kansas City, Kan. and Provo, Utah—and it’s coming soon to Austin, Tex., Portland, Ore., Phoenix, and San Jose, Calif., among others.

Google has teamed up with nonprofits and government agencies at both the local and federal levels to promote and develop applications that take advantage of the next generation of symmetrical broadband networks Google and a growing number of its ISP “competitors” have started to roll out.

If we as a society had access to blazing-fast upload speed, what could we do with it?

One such effort is U.S. Ignite, a partnership between the White House, the National Science Foundation, big tech companies like Cisco and AT&T, and city governments from forward-thinking municipalities such as San Francisco and Chattanooga, Tenn.

Joe Kochan of U.S. Ignite explained that the key to understanding broadband’s current unbalanced setup is considering the telecommunications technologies that preceded it.

“You have to go back and look historically at how we got to the Internet,” he said. “Almost all communications technology at some point, when you go past simple telephone, were broadcast-only. It was listening to a radio program or watching a television program. Nobody could see high-bandwidth, bidirectional communication as something possible. I think that’s what going to drive the mass communication of the future.

“Moving from a standard network to a symmetric one would require upgrading some of the electronics that make the networks go,” Kochan continued. “Certainly it’s not cost-free. But it wouldn’t require tear up the pipes. It’s something that could happen on today’s networks.”

The common argument made by many ISPs against switching to symmetric networks is that there aren’t a lot of applications designed to take advantage of those types of network. It’s a catch-22: It’s difficult for the private sector to effectively roll out these applications when they’d be unusable for most of broadband customers in most of the country, and ISPs won’t deliver the service because there are no applications for it.

As a corrective, what follows is a list of some of the current and potential applications for broadband with lightning-quick upload speeds. The applications have widely disparate purposes, but are united around a common theme of further blurring the line between where real-life ends and the online world begins.

How libraries can flip the cloud

In many ways we live much of our digital lives on the cloud. We save our photos on the cloud, we store our emails on the cloud, and we listen to music streamed from the cloud. While much of the data with which we interact on the daily basis lives in a giant data center somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, nearly all of the programs we actually use exist on our physical machines.

Aaron Deacon wants to change all that. Deacon is the managing director of KC Digital Drive, a nonprofit created shortly after Google announced that Kansas City would become the first city in the world to receive its Fiber service. KC Digital Drive works on everything from building digital citizenry among Kansas City residents to fostering partnerships with other “gigabit cities,” but one of its main jobs is promoting local projects that take advantage of Kansas City’s newfound connectivity.

Deacon, for example, is working with the Kansas City Public Library to create a lending library for computer software.

“The files will live on your computer, but the programs themselves will live on the cloud,” Deacon explained. “It’s still in an early stage, but the initial concept is being able to have things like AutoDesk or Adobe Creative Suite or SPSS [Statistical Package for the Social Sciences] be checked out from the library the way you would a book.”

The model of remotely hosted software interacting with files sitting only a few inches from users’ faces is something that could revolutionize how computers are set up.

A lot of this software can be prohibitively expensive, especially for someone who only wants to use the program for a specific project, for instance, or is just interested in learning how to use Photoshop or InDesign. Checking the program out of the library for a week would make far more sense than shelling out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for your own personal copy.

The software-lending library flips on its head users’ whole relationship with the cloud. Now, the program used for editing a video analyzing a statistical dataset will live on the cloud, but the file itself will be on a local hard drive.

“If you’re trying to edit a big, high-definition file on your computer with a copy of Adobe Premiere hosted remotely at a data center across the country,” Deacon noted, “it’s going to require pretty good two-way connectivity.”

The model of remotely hosted software interacting with files sitting only a few inches from users’ faces is something that could revolutionize how computers are set up. With the computational heavy lifting done elsewhere, complex tasks like video editing could be quickly and efficiently done on small, inexpensive machines that only require a fraction of the processing power of many of today’s devices used for similar tasks.

Better than being there (if ‘there’ is the doctor’s office)

Somewhere on the way to the future, we were promised holograms that never materialized. Instead, we have video conferencing like Skype or Google Hangouts. While certainly useful, the current suite of commercially available video-conferencing options leave a lot to be desired, at least partially due to limitations imposed by relatively low upload speeds. Get rid of those limitations and a whole world of possibilities suddenly opens up.

“A number of people have figured out that if you have a low-latency, high-bandwidth, bidirectional communication facility in your home, getting access to a healthcare provider could be much cheaper, much more convenient, and much more effective than it currently is,” Kochan insisted, adding that some of the most exciting next-generation applications are in the field of healthcare.

Kochan pointed to a Kansas City–based company called SightDeck, which has created a two-way remote video-conferencing system. It’s like the green-screen technology local TV stations use for weather reports but on steroids:

While SightDeck seems largely focused on facilitating business meetings, Kochan says, the technology’s true potential is medical. People could beam into their general practitioner’s office for a checkup, or have a dermatologist look at a mole on their shoulder that recently changed color.

Improved videoconferencing can also help doctors work better together by letting people on opposite sides of the country collaborate on complex 3D models in real time.

“A surgical trainee could be talking to an expert on a particular procedure across the country,” Kochan speculated. “They could both be looking at the same CAT scan model of a heart or liver” and manipulate it “between the two of them. They could be actually be creating a plan for the operation they’re about to do for a real live person.”

He added that U.S. Ignite is currently working in tandem with the George Washington University and Verizon on a way to use video conferencing to allow certain diabetes patients to undergo dialysis at home, without the need to go into a doctor’s office.

There are certain types of dialysis procedures that are simple enough for patients to perform themselves, but doctors are wary of not having daily contact. They’d rather ensure that patients are doing it correctly—and doing it to begin with. Using interactive video conferencing, along with a few sensors and monitors, all of that can be accomplished without the need to drive all the way into a medical facility.

Making mobile better

The cellular networks on which smartphones traditionally operate have the same asymmetric upload-download dynamics as most wired networks. NetIndex found that mobile download speeds in the U.S. are more than double upload speeds. While there isn’t as much of a concerted push to make those two numbers converge as there is with wired networks, the growth of symmetric broadband is going to have a major effect on the operation of every smartphone in the country.

“All of the cable networks are building routers that have the capacity to have your home Wi-Fi network and also a public Wi-Fi network going at the same time,” Deacon explains. “Cell bandwidth is shrinking and people are looking to offload cellular traffic onto Wi-Fi networks.”

In essence, ISPs are forcibly turning people’s home routers into public Wi-Fi hotspots. In Houston, alone, Comcast flipped a switch over the summer that transformed 150,000 personal routers into Wi-Fi hotspots. Those networks were accessible to other Comcast customers. It was a tremendous service, but it came at a cost: The company injected advertisements directly into their browsers.

Improved videoconferencing can also help doctors work better together by letting people on opposite sides of the country collaborate on complex 3D models in real time.

By the end of this year, Comcast hopes to have 8 million Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots set up across the country. The Philadelphia-based telecom behemoth isn’t the only ISP with this idea. As Wi-Fi hotspots become increasingly prevalent, a whole host of data that was previously carried across cellular networks will be moved to broadband ones—some of which, at least, will be capable of uploading data at extremely high speeds.

Deacon noted that one effort that could be bolstered by these heightened mobile upload speeds is a company like, which allows photographers to upload high-definition images to the company’s server in real time, where they can then be bought or licensed. Pushing out those sorts of big files through a cellular network, or even through a standard broadband connection, can be a slow and laborious process. Stick the device on a symmetric network capable of sucking up a gigabit of data every second, and it’s a whole new ballgame for people taking photos of ballgames.

Turning the world into your classroom

Education is another area where next-generation symmetric networks have an incredible amount of potential.

U.S. Ignite worked with Tennessee State Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., which has a famously municipal ISP offering gigabit upload speeds, for a demonstration that broadcast 3D images for aquatic life directly into a school in Chicago. Since the model being projected from the aquarium was in 3D, students could actively mode through the image to see behind objects.

For the first time ever, anyone could push just as much information out into the world as they received. At least, that was the hope.

“We’re working on a project connecting the folks in Chattanooga with an oceanographic institute in Los Angeles, which has an underwater microscope,” Kochan explained. “Students at a STEM high school in Tennessee can connect remotely to manipulate it, move it around, and study underwater organisms in the Pacific Ocean from their classroom in Tennessee. That requires an advanced network with a lot of symmetric bandwidth.”

Discovering a whole new Internet

“The medium is the message,” as media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote. Essentially, the systems for information delivery leave an indelible, albeit often unnoticed, footprint on the information being delivered. Thus far, the Internet’s greatest innovation has been turning mass media into a two-way street. For the first time ever, anyone could push just as much information out into the world as they received.

At least, that was the hope. In reality, the very physical infrastructure of the Internet made that ideal something that could only be realized partially. All the glowing rectangles in our lives did a far better job of essentially building better versions of old-style media than acting as true platforms for back-and-forth communication.

In the early days of the Internet, it wasn’t such a big issue. Data-rich applications like streaming video and live conferencing were rarely available to everyday consumers. However, as people start to demand more and more out of their Internet experience, the idea that the online world has more to offer than simply improving on newspapers, radios, and televisions is one that is finally beginning to influence the big companies, not to mention government agencies, responsible for the very foundation of our online experience.

When the day comes that symmetric networks are truly universal, the online experience for virtually every Internet user will look almost unrecognizable from what it’s like today.


Photos via Wikimedia Commons and CoClouds | Remix by Max Fleishman