Too much bandwidth? No such thing

As we get more bandwidth, we find that the ability to connect and interconnect brings far more opportunities and capabilities than a stand-alone machine can offer. When I started with a computer, over 30 years ago, there were no networks. We assumed that the machine we were working on was the only one in the world. Effectively, it was.

Slowly, gradually, the cables spun their nets, ensnaring us in the connectivity, tempting us with the possibilities. And then, suddenly, we discover that the computer is no longer used for spreadsheets and word processing—we only need the ancient 486 in the corner for that.

I’d hazard a guess that most machines used in the home or college environment--maybe the same is true of those at work--are used for games, chatting and watching streamed TV, or reading electronic books, rather than the more traditional applications. But it starts slowly.

It usually starts with dial-up. The very first experience of network connection I had was using the built-in modem on a TRS-80. Ironically enough, I used that slow, fragile modem to prolong the life of another out-dated technology. I found a telex gateway and used the Trash-80 to book accommodation in the Pousadas of Portugal. A week driving around the hinterland of Portugal, booked using electronic systems. The start of an adventure in electronic communication.

Incidentally, I still use that TRS-80. It’s still lighter and more portable than the PIII SVGA laptop that comes with my office job, and if I only need to bash in some text while on the road, it is still the best machine for the job.

Apart from that foray into on-line bookings, I was a latecomer to the world of on-line communications. My next attempt was down a 14k4 modem that was no longer needed at work. I managed e-mails and bulletin boards and Xmodem transfers from point to point. At that point the fascination was more about what we might be able to do, than what we could do. After all, the machines were too slow and the bandwidth was too limited for any real fun.

Pretty soon I upgraded that old machine. The new one came with a 56k modem. I signed up with an ISP, paying for my connection by the minute. In those days, there was no Java or Macromedia, so even with a 56k modem, the page loads were cheap enough to do some real exploring of the evolving web. The big advantage of per-minute dial-up is that you can try a lot of different ISPs with no significant cost in terms of time, convenience or money. I took full advantage of that and tried a number of providers. I found that real connection speeds varied from 33k to 48k bits/sec, and eventually selected one that consistently delivered 48k. The thirst for bandwidth had begun.

By this time, I was using the computer for banking, paying my bills, and was starting to discover that things were a bit too slow. Not only that, but the time on-line was tying up the phone line. I wanted to use the web: my partner wanted to use the phone. Probably like many, I was starting to buy CDs and video cassettes, but too often found that the connection would drop or time out, just after I had entered my credit card details.

At this stage, most people, faced with the choice either stick with their AOL over 56k, or step up to cable or ADSL. I took an intermediate step and found the cheapest, thinnest DSL pipe I could get: 112k bps. It changed our lives. Now the connection never dropped. Now we could think about downloading a 10 MB file by leaving things running without stopping all phone communication. When a relative stayed, I could connect her favourite Polish-language radio station and leave the machine streaming the broadcast. Finally, the banking sites were running fast enough to work them properly, but MP3s still took longer to download than the playtime.

Also, I could for the first time understand why people left their computers on all the time. Now if I wanted to know something, I just woke up the screensaver and started typing.

But even so, it was slow.... Not enough memory; not enough bandwidth, a slow processor, so it was a new machine and a faster connection.

Finally, the machine had transformed from a quasi typewriter into a multi-media entertainment centre, with movies on demand, books available online, music available at the click of a mouse, and downloads quicker than playing time.

I progressed as the technology advanced. I bought new machines at 3-year intervals, I used my bandwidth to the max when it was limited. And as the average bandwidth increased, so the applications expanded to soak up more bandwidth. The last site I logged on to was an on-line childrens' library. The download was still going after 250 MB. For that, my children can get to read a huge range of books from all around the world. Imagine.

Where do you want to go today?

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