Don’t Ride a Horse and Buggy on the Internet Superhighway

There’s so much talk about Gigabit Ethernet to the home that you’d think we’re all only months away from insanely fast business-grade Internet connections in our family rooms. While in general that’s probably true, it begs the question: So what?

Ultimately, if you’re not using that business-grade connectivity for anything more than refreshing your browser faster, what’s the point? Let’s look only at what’s going on in my neck of the woods in Austin, TX. Google Fiber’s plan to build out high-speed fiber to the home in Austin has prompted the Time Warner cable franchise to respond by boosting its network speeds to 300 Mbps. Grande Communications is jumping into the game by offering gigabit fiber to the home for $64.99 per month.

That’s just in Austin. Google is discussing the same buildout plans in 34 cities and 9 metro areas across the US. Add in competing services and we could be witnessing the early stages of truly transformative technology.

Here’s the catch: It’s only transformative technology if you actually do something differently with it. Faster Internet needs an end. When you look at how we work today, it’s not much different than when all we had was phone-grade connection to the home. The ways we use the Internet -- the applications we claim to rely on -- have remained largely unchanged in over a decade.

On the Internet Superhighway, the horse and buggy is not a suitable vehicle.

And there’s really no downside to trying something new. Internet speeds previously reserved only for big businesses will now be available at home, at a cost not much higher than your monthly cell phone bill. This in turn has allowed the creation of new applications to really take advantage of the broader bandwidth.

High-end business-grade applications are emerging as Software-as-a-Service. Your desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet can give you access to high definition video that makes the online meeting experience almost like being there. Sharing work files and recording meetings or training session make real collaboration easy. And if you’re ahead of the curve on implementing these solutions, you have a leg up on your competition. You’re making it easier for you, your employees and your partners to do real work.

That’s real work; it doesn’t have to mean more work. In a 2012 telecommuting study from The University of Texas at Austin, survey respondents actually spent more hours working than when in the office. They willingly replaced the time they spent commuting with more time in front of the computer.

But working harder is not enough. None of us really wants to work harder, do we? We want to work smarter, and turn the advantages of these blazing fast Internet speeds into a way to generate competitive advantage. We need to embrace new solutions. Otherwise we’ll just be stuck in our horse and buggy, content to have a faster connection to Netflix in the occasional few hours a week that we’re not tied to the computer for business.

All this magical new technology. If we’re not starting to use it now, what’s the point? If we can’t use it to transform our lives, why do we even want it begin with? If we can use it, why aren’t we?

This piece first appeared in Wired Magazine September 2014