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Sneaker Net

When will the bandwidth of the internet surpass that of FedEx?

One of my favorite reads over the last few months has been “What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Questions” by Randal Munroe. In his book, Munroe diligently applies calm and reasonable thought to absurd (and sometimes disturbing) questions presented to him by followers of his website. Questions such as How many laser pointers would it take to point at the moon to have a visible effect on earth? and How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York? are given a rather rigorous treatment. Munroe’s methods, assumptions, and approximations are the interesting and entertaining parts rather than any bottom line answers – which I guess is the point.

One such question in this book struck me as fascinating: When – if ever – will the bandwidth of the internet surpass that of FedEx? The thought goes like this: The internet can handle so many bits per second, but you also can load FedEx planes full of micro SD drives and physically deliver the data that way – commonly known as “sneaker net.” Companies do this today: ship hard drives of data to destinations instead of using the internet because it will get there quicker.

The calculations get a bit mind-boggling. In Munroe’s research, the “total internet traffic currently averages 167 terabits per second.” However, with micro-SD cards at a storage density of 160 terabytes per kilogram; the current FedEx fleet’s capacity loaded with SD cards “could transfer about 177 petabits per second or 2 zettabytes per day.” The net result is that FedEx’s bandwidth is about 1000 times that of the internet. The peta and zetta numerical prefixes are not currently in our common vocabulary – yet. 

Munroe’s internet traffic research (credited to Cisco) estimates that global internet traffic “is growing by 29 percent annually” and thus the straight-forward estimate is that the internet will exceed the FedEx bandwidth sometime around the year 2040. This, of course, assumes that the SD card storage density remains more or less constant and that FedEx’s fleet remains at the same size and efficiency. As you might expect, the answer in Munroe’s book continues with more estimates and speculations on handling possible increases in SD card storage density, future breakthroughs in internet capacity, the size of the freight industry, etc. I invite you to refer to his book if you want more details.

I am not sure if there is a specific point to present in this article as it pertains to Pulseroller or even the material handling world in general other than the freight industry could theoretically move around the Internet for some time to come. I would think that this thought would kind of tickle the geek-engineer-nerd in those of us so inclined. For the foreseeable future, if you must get a large amount of data  - say a few hundred AutoCAD drawings to a customer - you still may be better off sending them a hard drive instead of a download link.