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April 1995
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1995-05-01 »

Bandying Bandwidth

Someone who thought I would be interested recently electronic-mailed me a very long essay called "The Bandwidth Tidal Wave" by George Gilder. It begins by quoting yet another of the endearing statements that makes Bill Gates famous in the world of computers: "We'll have infinite bandwidth in a decade's time."1

The first issue that would probably arise is, "What is bandwidth, anyway?" This is actually a brilliant question and makes an excellent starting point for an analysis of the essay. "Bandwidth," used in the context of computers, refers to the speed at which information can be transferred from one place to another. It is most important in reference to what should never be referred to as "the Information Superhighway." The point Gilder was trying to make with his essay, although he did not state it in exactly this way, was this: Not only will people be able to pay bills and buy groceries from the comfort of their own home, but they will be able to do so at overwhelming speeds.

Gilder believes that with the advent of long-range fibre-optic cabling, bandwidth will increase to such astonishing proportions that efficient use of the medium will no longer be necessary. Rather than using a computer to minimize the amount of information being sent over the line, information in any form will be sent across at its most basic level with plenty of bandwidth to spare. The CPU (or Central Processing Unit, the part of a computer that does the "computing") will become "a minor peripheral" and be needed very little or not at all.

Gilder implies that "bandwidth" will become a household term. All electronics and communications technology will become based on it, as they already are to some extent. The claim that "My bandwidth is bigger than your bandwidth!" will become commonplace among people of the Information Age.

Indeed, bandwidth is predicted to become so much "bigger" that computers will be able to communicate with each other as fast as or faster than their internal components can communicate with each other. This basically means that a group of computers anywhere in the world would be able to share their components as if they were all one machine, thereby becoming a "wide area supercomputer." Necessarily this theory has some problems, primarily that, as Gilder said, the processor itself will be unneeded anyway as bandwidth increases. So in essence the world will be one massive supercomputer with nothing at all to compute. Bill Gates is a strong supporter of the "Tiger" software which will do us this great favour.

It could be construed as good that bandwidth will increase to a degree that it will replace "processing." But to say this would be the same as to say the human race would be better off if it could acquire telepathy in exchange for the ability to think. What is the point of communicating quickly and easily if you have nothing to communicate? Commercial foolishness and a general misunderstanding of the usefulness of a global information network could lead to the wasting of bandwidth, which could be much more useful if managed properly. Gilder notices this point in his essay, but seems to brush it off lightly. Like many people, he is entranced by the many great advancements that high bandwidth will bring us; notably, video on demand.

Video on demand is the next step in the average couch potato's life, and Gilder explains at length the research being done with it in labs at Microsoft, Intel, and IBM. The idea is that with sufficient bandwidth, the "movie server" computers at your local cable company will not have to be particularly fast or powerful. Instead, they will have to be able to retrieve information and send it across the line as rapidly as possible. Depending on personal opinion [And whether or not they play "The Simpsons" regularly], this may be considered an incredible waste of communications technology.

But apparently, wasting communications technology is what modern science is all about, and the new advances that will make "bandwidth" increase so drastically over the next few years will make the amount of bandwidth used wastefully seem insignificant compared to the amount of bandwidth not used at all. Hopefully, some people with different ideals will allow the seemingly unimportant computer processor to share the massive bandwidth and perhaps to do some real work while the rest of the world finds new and improved ways to do nothing at all.

1Bill Gates, PC Magazine, Oct. 11, 1994. Note that my Finite Mathematics teacher defines "infinite" as something "really really big." In fact, according to Einstein's law of relativity, anything travelling at infinite speed, even energy itself, would acquire infinite mass. If this occurred, the fibre-optic cabling used to transfer information would become a black hole into which the rest of the universe would necessarily be sucked at some speed approximately equal to the speed of light. Bill Gates may be predicting the end of the world. On the other hand, he may be making this up.

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