Three Trends That Will Shape the Future of Our Digital Infrastructure

Posted by Infra on Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Written by Devin Morrissey

The maintenance and expansion of quality infrastructure is essential to the social and economic growth of any area. Both businesses and consumers rely on the physical elements of their local infrastructure in order to succeed. Railways, streets, parking lots, plumbing and water systems, power lines, and telephone lines all help to fulfill the basic needs of a society. However, in a world where many business exchanges, social interactions, communications, and entertainment options increasingly rely on the internet, it’s also important to consider the improvements we will need to make to our digital infrastructure.

Many people take the physical aspects of the internet for granted. Some would believe it’s purely non-physical, like some sort of digital magic. While this may appear to be true, the internet is a physical entity that snakes its way through our walls and in vast cable networks beneath streets, railways, and oceans. As technology advances, we need to acknowledge the physical limitations of our current digital infrastructure and consider the steps necessary to continue meeting the demands we place on the internet. Here are some major trends within our digital infrastructure as well as a look at what the future will bring.

Server - Digital Infrastructure Trends in the USA

1. Fiber Optic Technology Will Become More Widely Available

As technology advances, our need to achieve faster, more reliable internet connections increases as well. While cable and DSL connections are still powerful enough to handle most applications at the moment, the future of the internet will rely on the adoption of fiber optic lines. Cable and DSL run electric currents through copper wire to transmit data. These copper cables are susceptible to corrosion, electrical interference, and may degrade over longer distances.

In contrast, fiber optic lines use light signals transferred through ultra-thin strands of glass or plastic to send and receive data. Fiber optic lines provide much faster connection speeds than other traditional internet connections and require much less space than copper lines. As an example, advertised download speeds for DSL often range from 1 Mbps to 20 Mbps, while fiber optic internet can achieve download speeds of more than 1 Gbps (or 1000 Mbps). It’s important to note that connection speeds will vary based on many factors, and while some top-tier copper cable lines may be able to deliver 1 Gbps speeds, this is likely the absolute maximum speed the old infrastructure can handle.

With such clear advantage, in speed and reliability, there’s no doubt fiber optics will eventually replace cable internet. However, this will likely be a slow, gradual process as making this change to the infrastructure is expensive. Although the initial costs of installing fiber optic lines may be high, the long-term benefits outweigh these costs as copper lines are much more expensive to repair and maintain.

One example of the expansion of fiber optics in popular culture takes place within the smartest stadiums in America. To meet the data demands of nearly 18,000 fans at a time, Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center has installed more than 650 miles of fiber optic cable, providing high-speed internet via hundreds of wi-fi access points throughout the stadium. However, fiber optic internet can do much more than handle a stadium full of smartphone-toting fans. Advances in smart cities, internet of things (IoT) technologies, new virtual reality entertainment systems, ultra high definition 4K television, and faster mobile data speeds will all benefit from the capabilities of fiber optics. Along with these, it’s inevitable that new immersive digital activities which haven’t yet been invented will arise as a result of fiber optic technology.

2. We Will Shift Toward Content Centered Networking

In its early stages, the internet was designed for simple communication between one computer and another. The infrastructure was largely modeled after the telephone system, in which one user sends data and requests to a specific address. Instead of a phone number, users and websites are identified by unique IP addresses. This works well for digital correspondence like email. However, as a society, the tasks we place on the internet have grown far beyond simply communicating with one another. Instead, the internet is used primarily to access content, including articles, photos, and a massive surge in streaming video services.

The internet still relies on an outdated infrastructure in which the data users want to access online is stored in limited locations, often solely on the host’s server. In this system, every time a user wants to access the same data, they have to make a separate request routed to that host server. This may be fine today, but as numbers of internet users grow and we place greater demands on networks, we will need a new system of processing data online in order to keep up.

As a means to move away from host centered networks, researchers are working toward a successful model of content centered networks (CCN). In a CCN system, content and data packets are “named” so that a user could search directly for a piece of content rather than the IP address for a specific host server. Because the content is named, it can be cached on different nodes along the route, allowing users to access files more quickly with fewer network hops and redundant requests. This is especially effective in transferring files that are accessed often by a large number of users.

Of course, as the infrastructure changes, network security practices will continue to evolve as well. With traditional internet security, the focus is placed on protecting the routes information uses to travel. CCN systems instead protect individual packets of information, no matter where they travel. Digital signatures and automatic encryption on cached copies of the content ensure that users receive the correct data from the specified creator. Since the authentication can always be verified, users can trust that the files they access are secure.

3. High Speed Connections Will Reach Farther Into Rural Areas

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has defined high-speed internet, or broadband, as a connection that provides download or upload speeds of at least 25 Mbps. Because the copper cables we’ve relied on for high-speed internet are limited by distance, rural areas have been the last to get fast, reliable internet. This is also due in part to the fact that internet routes into rural areas tend to serve fewer people, spread over greater distances, which lowers the return on investment for internet providers.

Although fiber optic cables can send a strong signal across greater distances, the cost of these cables is even higher than copper cables. Again, internet providers find it difficult to justify the cost of laying these lines in rural areas where they may only serve 10 people per square mile, versus 2000 in typical urban areas. Wireless and satellite connections may seem like another feasible alternative. However, most of these fail to meet the minimum standard for broadband.

Making these improvements to rural internet access isn’t simply about allowing these populations to stream video services and keep up with news and social media. The lack of connectivity contributes not just to a digital divide, but also to economic and educational disparities between rural and urban communities. Better connectivity in rural areas could even help health professionals and social workers to identify groups with the greatest needs related to physical and mental healthcare, poverty, and food insecurity.

Despite several recent and ongoing initiatives by internet providers, tech companies, and government programs, it will be years before these make a real impact. Even with government regulations and funding opportunities, internet providers find it difficult to justify the cost of reaching these rural areas. In the meantime, technology in urban areas continues to evolve, leaving rural areas farther and farther behind.

As technologies and expectations surrounding the internet continue to progress, we will create new opportunities as well as solutions to shortcomings in our internet capabilities. Making the shift to fiber optic cables will greatly increase the speed and reliability of connections in urban environments. Along with this, redefining and successfully enforcing a bare minimum of available internet services will help improve rural communities and lessen the digital and economic divides. Hopefully tech companies and funding initiatives will continue to gradually work toward making these improvements, future-proofing the infrastructure of our internet on a local and global scale.

Devin Morrissey is a freelance content creator, and he prides himself on being a jack of all trades. His career trajectory is more a zigzag than an obvious trend, just the way he likes it. He pops up across the Pacific Northwest, though never in one place for long. You can follow him more reliably on Twitter.

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