Science Matters →

How Can the Internet Be Faster?

wi fi

Remember dial-up internet? Those soothing sounds of modems humming and buzzing into the night were many people’s first memories of internet access. A lot has changed since then and like any other technology it will continue to evolve. From slow dial up speeds to the current mobile access devices the internet speeds have been enhanced quite a bit in the past few decades, but can we pick up the pace even more? How can the internet be faster? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

The internet’s origins took place in the late 70’s and early 80’s as scientists worked on a way to share data world wide without the use of similar hardware and software programs. In August of 1991, the internet became available for public use. Since those early days of commercial internet use a lot has changed.

In the past three decades, we’ve seen the technological growth from land line only access to millions of web wielding mobile devices. The capabilities to get access nearly anywhere is not the only major change, we’ve also significantly enhanced the rate at which we can transfer data. Despite the large growth in connection speeds and data transfers we still have a long ways to go. As more and more people use the existing technologies the more we’ll see the need for faster service to prevent clogged up slow transmissions. So, what comes next?

The tech and internet juggernaut Google has some pretty remarkable plans they’re working on to address the concern for faster and more available high speed internet access. For the better part of a year they have been testing out a new fleet of drones capable of beaming down gigabits per second, roughly 40 times faster than the fastest wireless services available right now. These drones have been flying over New Mexico as a test to see if Google can harness a new wavelength for faster data transfers and a whole new era in internet technology.

For sending information through the air we harness the natural properties of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is the full span upon which light travels. Our eyes have evolved to see a portion of the spectrum known as visible light, but there are many other formats that we simply can’t see. These may be invisible to us, but they are definitely there and help carry out nearly all of our communications methods. Microwaves and Radio waves are the portion of the spectrum that we use for AM, FM, TV, and mobile phone communications. Google’s plan is to avoid those all together and jump to super high frequency waves called millimeter waves.

Millimeter waves occupy a thin band between microwaves and infrared waves. Their super high frequency properties make them the ideal candidate to transfer a lot of data across very quickly. Another major benefit to these high frequency waves is that unlike the overused and clogged up microwaves and radio waves, these remain unused...for now. Google’s attempts to harness this new area of the spectrum is pretty cool though because it will allow for an entire new region of possibilities and technological growth. Currently one major issue is that these high frequency waves fade pretty quickly, but this is not something that is deterring them from further tests. The US Defense Force and DARPA have been testing out the use of millimeter wave communications since 2012. Their objective is to fly drones over troops in remote areas and give them access to a myriad of very fast data transfer options to allow for quick communications, faster GPS, relaying signals, and beyond.

From the noisy dial ups to the stealthy drone based internet service, the world of global communications has evolved quite a bit right before our eyes. As technology moves forward as will the mechanisms that guide our communications and data transfers. While we may not quite be ready to Netflix and chill faster, these millimeter waves are looking like they could be the wave of the future.