In the 1990s, dial-up internet connection speeds were measured in kilobits per second.
Come the early Noughties, they were being measured in megabits per second – firstly in single figures across ADSL lines, then double figures with Fibre to the Cabinet connections.
The 2010s saw speeds hitting triple figures, as Fibre to the Premises connectivity allowed fibre optic data cables to extend from overseas data centres right into our homes.
Today, speeds of 900Mbps are achievable in major UK cities, while the 2020s are likely to see multi-gigabit broadband pushing connection speeds into four figures.
But what would multi-gigabit broadband mean for consumers? Is it really necessary? And how is it being achieved?
Getting the gigs
When fibre optic cables are used for the entirety of data’s journey into our homes, connections can run at speeds which would have seemed ridiculous even ten years ago.
Last month, Virgin Media managed to pipe data down its existing fibre cable network at 2.2Gbps – 34 times faster than the UK average, and 200 times faster than ADSL.
It’s also twice as fast as Virgin’s flagship consumer-facing service, the 1,140Mbps Gig1 platform, which is already available in millions of UK homes.
Virgin’s test also achieved upload speeds of 214Mbps, showcasing a future where working from home poses no technical obstacles for people who create media as well as consuming it.
Meanwhile, experiments are taking place into how quickly wireless data can be beamed around our homes, rather than merely distributed via Ethernet to hardwired devices.
Multi-gigabit wireless technology using the 60GHz frequency can support data transfers at speeds capable of matching (and exceeding) Virgin’s experiments.
This uses the emerging 802.11ay technology, which will eventually replace the fifth-generation 802.11ac WiFi protocol used by today’s domestic broadband routers.
The latter can only achieve real-world data transfer speeds of around 300Mbps, whereas 802.11ay is expected to be capable of transmitting data at speeds of almost 30Gbps.
What will people use multi-gigabit broadband for?
At the moment, nothing.
These are proof-of-concept experiments regarding future technologies, not trials designed to meet current need.
Right now, no private home needs 2.2Gbps connectivity. That’s more bandwidth than most small businesses currently require, let alone nuclear households.
However, that might change as our data consumption evolves.
The exponential growth in smart technology around the home will see hundreds of web-enabled devices communicating with servers – and with each other – in real time.
The growth of 8K video and gaming would make multi-gigabit connections more justifiable, and although the thought of 4K video calls might horrify you, it’s likely to arrive eventually.
Other services which would justify gigabit bandwidth include smart devices communicating autonomously with each other, and entire households working from home permanently.
Ten years ago, few people predicted the meteoric growth in tablets and IoT tech, so it’s entirely plausible that broadband speeds in 2031 will be measured in gigabits rather than megabits.