Thinking Tech

Making the Internet infinite and green

Posting in Architecture

David P. Reed has long argued there never was a noise floor. Engineer around the problem and spectrum becomes, not a series of parallel train tracks, but an ocean.

There is no noise floor.

(Picture from Wikipedia.)

The idea of a noise floor has been essential to telecommunications for a century. The idea is that interference from heat waves, other radio sources, or just the vibration of people walking along the floor makes it impossible, at some point, to measure an electronic signal.

As a result, signals can only be sent and received above the noise floor. More signals mean a higher floor. Broadcasting has become an arms race, increasing amounts of power needed to get signals above the rising floor.

But this idea has been under challenge for years.

The whole idea of Ultra-wideband (UWB), which I covered extensively early in the last decade, was that signals could be pushed and measured, across short distances, under the noise floor. It has been put into products that can track firefighters in burning buildings.

Internet luminary (and e-mail friend) David P. Reed has long argued that there never was a noise floor, just a convenient way to turn the limits of technology into a fact of nature. Engineer ways around the problem and spectrum becomes abundant, unlimited, not a series of parallel train tracks but an ocean.

The problem of the noise floor exists in wires as well as the air. Engineering our way around it, it turns out, is the best way to make the Internet green. With just a few coding changes, Bell Labs now says, we can cut the Internet's energy use by 99%.

This isn't just pie-in-the-sky. Bell Labs has harnessed the insights of the late, great Claude Shannon (above) to build a global consortium dubbed GreenTouch that aims to cut the energy use of electronic networks not by a factor of 100, but 1,000.

The group is now working on a reference architecture detailing how all this will come about, which should start making its way into products in five years.

The emphasis is on saving energy, but Shannon's approach -- that a code can always be devised to extract messages from a low-power channel -- is about more than energy savings. It implies infinite re-use of the electromagnetic spectrum, the application of mathematics to give us all the Internet we can ever want.

Claude Shannon was born in 1916, and passed away in 2001. But he may yet be known as the father of the 21st century Internet.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure