Recently a friend forwarded me this quote:
This just in, man walking is faster than FIOS! Earlier today a man walked across the street with a 1TB hard drive, at the same time he transferred the file using Verizon FIOS. The fios managed only 1% by the time the man had made it across the street.
I was one of those copy and paste forwards without source attribution, so I can’t really say if this was a real anecdote, a joke or a jab at Verizon for sucking at bandwidth. The message was sent with the subject “FiOS loses to a pedestrian” which I think was suppose to evoke shock, amusement and disbelief. Of course it only works that way if you are clueless.
I can clearly see how a regular person could read the headline and go “no way!” and be amused after reading the short text. On one hand, FiOS has reputation of being blindingly fast. On the other hand everyone had an experience with sending large files over the internet taking forever and a half. Juxtaposing the two forces the reader to hold these two contradictory notions in mind at the same time making ones original assumptions about FiOS speed seem exaggerated.
That’s if you are clueless though. If you do posses some clue, you will know that sneakernet has always been and still is the fastest way of transmuting data. Note that I said fastest – it’s definitely not the most convenient, cost efficient or practical one. But it is fastest.
I mean think about it. On FiOS you can theoretically upload data as fast as 20 MBps. But since FiOS is a best-effort type network you will likely be running much below that. You are also limited by the destination’s download speed. So even if you can send the data at full 20MBps the recipient may only have 6MBps download bandwidth to work with. Sending 1TB will take forever.
Using sneakernet however is different because the bandwidth is almost infinitely scalable. You are almost always sending all of the data in a single batch at rather modest speeds. These days you can carry 1TB in your pocket. If you have to transfer few hundred of terabytes you can take a wheel barrel or load the drives into your car. So our bandwidth is limited only by how fast we can move the data from one location to the other. If you keep the distance and velocity constant then the bandwidth will grow proportionally to the amount of data you are sending. That is a unique property of sneakernet and we can’t really hope to ever match it. Digital networks simply do not work that way.
In other words, there will always be some large quantity for which sneakernet will be faster than the best available high bandwidth network. So I 40 years I will be able to take that quote above, replace FiOS with the equivalent service, increase the 1TB value by two or three orders of magnitude and it will evoke the exact same response as it does today.
So keep that in mind next time you see something like this. You can’t really compare FiOS to sneakernet. The two are just too different. It’s like comparing sending your friend a postcard and delivering it to him in person. If you mail something you use an established network with it’s own built in overhead. The postcard has to be picked up, sorted, processed, routed to destination and then delivered. It takes time, but it’s convenient. In person delivery skips all that overhead at the cost of time and effort on your part. Each method has it’s benefits and trade offs.
If I had to transfer 1TB of data across the street, I would strongly consider just walking it over there in person. If I had to transfer that same TB to, say, China I would probably be more inclined toward electronic transfer. You pick the tool that fits the job.