Remember when you upgraded from 56k to a dedicated line, be it Cable, DSL, or ISDN? That sheer giddiness you felt gurgle up inside you when you loaded up the Yahoo! front page in a matter of seconds? How omnipotent we all felt on the Internet! Waiting 15 minutes to download an MP3 file? Gone! Waiting an hour to download a movie trailer? History! Those silly eBaumsWorld flash animations? You would bask in the awesome power of that loading bar as it shot from 0 to 100% in the blink of an eye. The days of 56k frustration were over! For some of us, we experienced this elation more than just once (I remember going from 28.8kbps to 56k, I’m sure some of our readers remember even further back).
However, here we are again in 2011 with U.S. average broadband download speeds of 4Mbps (according to the the FCC, 11.27Mbps according to Ookla) and we are nothing but cranky about our slow connections, our bandwidth caps, and our average broadband connection as compared with the rest of the world. Why can’t we be like South Korea, with 32.89Mbps average download speeds? Why can’t we get cheap fiber 1Gbps connections like Google and Sonic.net are testing out in select markets? The harsh reality is that even if we do magically get nationwide gigabit Internet connections, we’re still going to be cranky and are still going to be waiting for downloads to complete.
It is 2011 and I have Comcast. I have the 22Mbps down plan but sometimes my SpeedTest results hit 24Mbps. I’m not complaining because when Comcast works, it works. Suppose for a second that I like to pirate movies and some evil movie pirate has made a movie I want available for download, so I go ahead and start denying the MPAA of its well deserved coin. It takes me about an hour to download the movie in its entirety and my average download speed is around 9Mbps (about 1 megabyte per second). Yes, less than half what I was advertised, but this also depends on the host connection, etc. Anyway, it takes me an hour to download a movie I want to watch in 2011, and mind you, it’s not in full HD, but 720p. That is the new low-end “standard” for movie quality when it comes to downloads.
Rewind back to 2003 when I first upgraded to superfast 1Mbps Comcast from 56k Ameritech. There were no HD films back then so pirated movies were usually DVD rips. How long did a DVD quality AVI file take to download? About one hour. Wait a minute, the movie standard in 2003 took the same amount of time to download as the movie standard for 2011? Yup.
This really isn’t a crazy phenomenon; it makes perfect sense. As faster connection speeds become more widely available at a cheaper price, the amount of information that can be processed through a connection also increases. By default, the quality of files we download on the Internet goes up because we no longer have to wait countless hours to download them. Therefore, the old Holy Grail becomes the new standard because as media quality increases, so does file size.
Think of the evolution of the MP3. In the Napster days, 128kbps was considered the standard for MP3 audio quality. A full four minute song was about 3 megabytes and took anywhere between five and 10 minutes to download. By the mid-2000s, 192kbps was the new standard for MP3 files because faster download speeds meant our download time was sliced in half compared to downloading the same file on our old connections. In the late 2000s, the quality was then bumped to 320kbps CBR or 256kbps VBR. A four minute song was around 10 megabytes but we could still download it in a matter of seconds so the burden of waiting became a non-issue. Imagine downloading a 320kbps MP3 on a 56k connection.
The same applies to pictures and movies. At the turn of the millennium high quality pictures were around 100k-150k in size. Today they’re at least 3MB-4MB. DVD quality movies were around 600MB whereas 720p movies are 4GB, and more than double that for 1080p (and if they’re full uncompressed quality, you’re easily looking at over 10GB for 720p and almost 40GB for 1080p). As our connection speeds get faster, our media files get larger by default. So when the time comes for us to upgrade to a 1Gbps connection, we will be elated. We will download terabytes worth of cat pictures and videos in a matter of minutes and for a short time we will be on top of the world. A full quality 1080p video file will take about 10 minutes to download, and life will be good.
Until 2k, 3k, and 4k video standards come along. Then those few years of sweet download times will become something we desperately long for, as we must now wait an hour for a 500GB movie file to download. Already FLAC is creeping into the mix for audio files, and lossless audio files are gaining traction as the new standard. What once was a 100MB album size will increase fivefold. Megapixels are being crammed into cameras like sardines in a can, with gigapixel point and shoots looming on the horizon.
Luckily storage is cheap and with the increase in file sizes our hard drive capacities also increase. Our children and grandchildren will laugh at us when we tell them about our 1 terabyte hard drives. Media quality, data storage, and broadband speeds will forever be linked. When one goes up, so will the other two, which is why our wait times will never drastically differ in the future from what they are right now. Unless some technological quantum phenomenon totally makes the time-space continuum its bitch, we will always be in the dissatisfied position we are in today. We always are going to be dissatisfied with our connection speeds and blame our ISPs when in reality it is our thirst for higher quality media that is the true culprit.
Will high quality every be high quality enough? Probably not, there will always be some new thing that claims to be closer to real than the current technology. And when “as real as it gets” doesn’t cut it, then we will move into the domain of the hyper-real where the purest of audio files will generate air patterns that correspond with those generated by the actual instruments being played or some other ridiculous claim of improvement like that. So relax. Your gigabit connection won’t save you. You’re still going to be miserable when the thing you wouldn’t dare download because of its size becomes the new standard and the thing you didn’t even knew existed becomes the new Holy Grail. It will always be a game of cat-and-mouse because that, my friends, is how Moore’s law works.