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When will the Internet be able to carry more data than FedEx?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 22, 2013 11:33 AM

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That's the question Randall Munroe, creator of the beloved XKCD comics, teased out recently in his series, "What If?"

On the one hand, Munroe quotes a study from Cisco that estimates that total Internet traffic currently averages 167 terabits per second. On the other, FedEx has a fleet of 657 planes capable of lifting 26.5 million pounds of cargo each day. And if that cargo were comprised entirely of solid-state laptop drives weighing 78 grams each, Munroe figures FedEx could move 150 exabytes of data per day--which, when you start canceling zeroes, is 100-times the current "throughput of the internet." (And FedEx's capacity becomes 1000-times greater than the Internet's if all those planes are loaded with MicroSD cards instead.)

At the moment FedEx has a clear advantage, and it's unlikely to relinquish it anytime soon. Internet traffic is growing by 29 percent annually and will exceed FedEx's current carrying capacity by 2040. Of course, data storage devices will become more efficient over that time, too, leading Munroe to conclude that "for raw bandwidth, the internet will probably never beat SneakerNet" (as hand-delivery data systems are sometimes called).

Munroe points out that for data-intensive companies, the Internet v. FedEx question is hardly academic. Right now anytime you need to transfer more than a few hundred gigabytes of data, it's actually faster to overnight it on a plane. And in fact, this is how Google is pulling off the massive transfers involved with its effort to archive all the data from the Hubble space telescope.

Of course, what the Internet lacks in carrying capacity, it more than makes up for in speed, as Munroe illustrates with this amusing concluding comic:

FedEx Internet.jpg

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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