From the Pony Express to Marconi, to monolithic microwave integrated circuits

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This essay is sourced from the outstanding book The Cloud Revolution by Mark Mills

In 1860 the government subsidized a method to send information from coast to coast in 10 days via the Pony Express. While romanticized in many Hollywood movies it lasted only 18 months before bankruptcy and the rise of transcontinental telegraphy ended it. Two decades later the telephone arose and yet telegraph traffic continued to increase 5 fold up to its peak in World War II.

While speed of transmission increased significantly over the early decades of the telegram and telephone, the volume of information transmitted which we now call “bandwidth” could not compete with the US Mail whose volume increased 200 fold until a decade after the Internet came of age.

These advances in communications were exciting but arguably less so than the myriad of technological advances experienced between 1900 and 1950. They include cars, computers, aircraft, refrigerators, hospitals, books, mail, movie theaters, restaurants, pharmaceuticals and ubiquitous electricity.

Now you will be surprised to find that between 1950 and 2000 the list largely remained the same but with improvements to everything. There were no game changers until the Smartphone and the infrastructure that makes it possible came along. The Smart Phone is the single most significant, life changing, different, everyday product and service to emerge in the past half century.

The first commercial cell phone call took place on 1983, just a year after the last telegram was sent. This Motorola phone used an array of radio towers structured in cells, hence now their ubiquitous name. They forged a practically seamless network enabling connections over short distances to portable low powered handsets. But even as cell sales took off, the total number of land lines in the world rose for two more decades. They peaked in 2006 when they began an inexorable decline. Now some 4 decades after the cell phone’s invention the number of mobile phone subscribers is approaching the population of the Earth.

Every connection is called a node and the number will continue to increase as thousands of new internet satellites placed in orbit will capture the last billion of folks without cell phones.

The next advance in cell phone connections will not be between people but instead connecting machines, individual products, cars, parts of machines and even their sub components. This has been labeled “the internet of things”. You may have heard the term but likely did not understand its rather simple meaning.

There are already billions of machine to machine connections and they will outpace people connections in the future. All manner of parts and products in inventories, on factory floors or in transit are being accurately tracked.

Millions of us already experience the magic of remote low powered nodes we call Radio Frequency Identification or RFID chips. What most of us don’t understand is how these chips transmit information with no internal power. The battery free, plug free power comes from an external source we call a “reader” that beams radio energy at an unpowered chip. It briefly animates the chip to send back a signal. Perhaps not a great analogy but as a baseball player I think of the energy a pitched ball gives to a bat.

The RFID is well suited for acquiring limited quantities of information such as identity and location of billions of things. Simultaneously, however, the growth in bandwidth (quantity) of material capable of being transmitted is exhibited in the video chat option of your smart phone, some even your watch.

Anyone over 40 or maybe 30 grew up with the radio on Dick Tracy’s wrist developed by cartoonist Chester Gould. Martin Cooper, the Motorola engineer who invented the cell phone in 1983 credits Dick Tracy as his inspiration.

But even with the capability of so many little TV screens carrying a lot of bandwidth, in order to connect the wireless nodes of the future we need still more. We can achieve this by shortening the wavelength for transmission. We started with Marconi’s vacuum tubes transmitting waves several meters long now we are entering the world of ultra short radio waves called Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuits (MMICs).

Since Marconi we have reduced the amount of energy required to transmit wirelessly 10 billion times while increasing the amount of information we can carry a million fold.

Consider the net effect of today’s state of wireless bandwidth. Mark Mills in his book the Cloud Revolution which predicts a roaring decade of the 2020s says “a single smartphone today carries a thousand times more data than did the entire U.S. communication system in 1970”.

As 5G becomes ubiquitous, every mobile user will have access to a one hundred fold increase in bandwidth.

Each cellular network will handle 100 times the number of connected devices and 1000 times more data traffic

per square mile.

As political strife calms down and the climate barely changes there is room for optimism in things to come.

Portions of this essay are excerpted from the outstanding book The Cloud Revolution with permission of the author Mark Mills and the publisher Encounter Books.

  • CFACT Senior Science Analyst Jay Lehr has authored more than 1,000 magazine and journal articles and 36 books. Jay’s new book A Hitchhikers Journey Through Climate Change written with Teri Ciccone is now available on Kindle and Amazon.

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* This article was originally published here


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