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Oh My Tech!: Do we really need gigabit connection?

Published February 27, 2014 7:29 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Recently, a Google representative in Provo happily demonstrated what their speedy gigabit network, Google Fiber, would mean for consumers.

He called up a web browser on a computer and went to YouTube. Then he started playing 10 videos in 10 separate tabs simultaneously.

"See," he said. "You'll be able to watch 10 videos at the same time, and there's no buffering on any of them."

I thought to myself: In what universe would I want to watch 10 cat videos on YouTube simultaneously let alone one?

The fact is, there's nothing a resident could do currently to take advantage of a full gigabit-per-second download speed on an Internet network. Yet the news of ultra-fast fiber-optic networks like Google Fiber, UTOPIA and possibly other services has whipped customers into a frenzy in Utah. UTOPIA has been available in 11 cities from Tremonton to Payson, and Google Fiber is now signing up customers in Provo, one of only three cities in the U.S. with the service right now. Last month, it was announced that Google Fiber may come to Salt lake City.

So just exactly how would a 1-gigabit pipe to your home change your life compared to having a mid-tier broadband connection from, say, Comcast or CenturyLink? Honestly, not much. At least for now.

A reporter and I used to joke that the one real advantage to UTOPIA's gigabit connection to the home is that you could run five simultaneous video streams of porn without a discernible loss of speed. Actually, even a 1-gigabit connection would be too fast for that.

In reality, everything you do at home doesn't require probably more than a 20-megabit-per-second connection, which is about one-fiftieth the speed offered by UTOPIA or Google Fiber.

Consider that a gigabit-per-second connection is the same as 1,024 megabits per second. Here is the approximate download bandwidth requirements for the most popular things on the web:

Netflix streaming in high definition • The video streaming service recommends a connection of 5 megabits per second for HD viewing and 3 megabits for standard definition. Even for 3D content, the type that requires the most bandwidth, you need 12 megabits.

Skype • Video calling in standard definition requires 500 kilobits per second both download and upload, or less than half of a megabit. For video calling in high definition, Skype recommends 1.5 megabits per second down and up.

Video streaming • For streaming videos to your computer or mobile device from iTunes or Google Play, the highest bandwidth it would use for a full 1080p high-definition video signal would be around 4 megabits per second, and it would require at least 1.5 megabits per second.

Music streaming • If you listen to streaming music over a service such as Spotify, iTunes or Google's music service, the highest quality that music is delivered is 320 kilobits per second or roughly one-third of a megabit. Most services, however, will automatically bring that down to around 256 kilobits per second so it doesn't take all of your cellular data allotment.

Online gaming • This can vary a lot depending on the game. But game developers make the game's data packets that are transferred back and forth very small and the bandwidth requirements very low so players don't experience any lag in gameplay. On average, most games would require well below 1 megabit per second.

Web surfing • How fast of a connection you need to surf the web really depends on your level of patience. The faster your connection, the faster your web pages will be drawn on the screen. Today's slickest, most advanced websites that use animation or streaming video only require connections of around 2 or so megabits per second. To run that animation smoothly actually is more dependant on how fast your computer's processor is than the bandwidth.

Multiple users • This is where a faster connection becomes necessary. Take any of these activities and multiply them by three or four people in a family, and more bandwidth becomes a necessity. But I can't imagine a family of say four requiring more than 50 megabits per second if they were all watching separate movies on Netflix at the same time.

As you can see, there is absolutely no service or technology in the home today that requires the kind of bandwidth Google Fiber or UTOPIA delivers. It's really high-tech businesses that would use that kind of speed — a medical company, for example, that needs to transfer medical imaging files or an engineering firm that transfers huge CAD (computer-aided design) files.

Not that we won't be needing that kind of speed in the future in our homes. Like computer processing power, our need for speed will only grow, and one day we'll want the fastest connection available for whatever dazzling entertainment services may come. And perhaps in the future there will be many services and appliances in our home that will require sucking up that much bandwidth simultaneously. Just not today.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/Topics/ohmytech.






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