Need for speed

Physicists regularly smash download speed records in the lab, but it will be some time before new technologies like laser internet filter down our homes. That’s not to say things aren’t improving fast.

The average UK internet connection speed is now 6.8 Megabits/s (equivalent to 850 kilobytes/s), over a hundred times faster than it was 10 years ago, mainly thanks to the transition from dial up modems to broadband technology.

Dial up vs Broadband

Comparing dial up and broadband connections is a bit like comparing a single lane country road and a multiple lane motorway – more lanes (or channels) mean fewer queues and speedier travel.

When you connect to the internet via a dial up modem, your computer phones your internet service provider (ISP) and they exchange information. Just like during a normal telephone call, the dial up connection hogs the whole phone line and nobody else can use it to make or receive calls (a guaranteed source of family arguments in the late 90s).

The fundamental difference when it comes to broadband internet is that your phone line is divided up into many channels, with information flowing simultaneously down these different channels. As a result, downloading an MP3 typically takes just a few seconds.

Since users tend to download a lot more than they upload, most broadband services are set up to dedicate more channels to downloading, meaning that upload speeds can be comparatively sluggish.

Finally, some channels are reserved for phone calls, meaning that you can watch videos of cats on YouTube undisturbed while your housemate calls his mum.

Need for speed

Using fibre-optic cables rather than traditional copper wires can also boost internet speeds, transmitting data as pulses of light rather than electrical current.

As broadband speeds get faster, so does our appetite for data consumption. And the advent of 3D TV and cloud computing are just some of the things likely to make us more data hungry than ever in years to come.

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