FedEx versus the Internet

Question: When, if ever, will the bandwidth of the Internet surpass that of FedEx?

That’s the question that Randall Munroe tackles in his latest “what-if” blog post. His conclusion? 2040. That answer depends on this huge assumption: if Internet transfer rates grow much faster than storage rates on hard drives, SD cards, etc.:

Those thumbnail-sized flakes have a storage density of up to 160 terabytes per kilogram, which means a FedEx fleet loaded with MicroSD cards could transfer about 177 petabits per second, or two zettabytes per day—a thousand times the internet’s current traffic level. (The infrastructure would be interesting—Google would need to build huge warehouses to hold a massive card-processing operation.)

Cisco estimates internet traffic is growing at about 29% annually. At that rate, we’d hit the FedEx point in 2040. Of course, the amount of data we can fit on a drive will have gone up by then, too. The only way to actually reach the FedEx point is if transfer rates grow much faster than storage rates. In an intuitive sense, this seems unlikely, since storage and transfer are fundamentally linked—all that data is coming from somewhere and going somewhere—but there’s no way to  predict usage patterns for sure.

While FedEx is big enough to keep up with the next few decades of actual usage, there’s no technological reason we can’t build a connection that beats them on bandwidth. There are experimental fiber clusters that can handle over a petabit per second. A cluster of 200 of those would beat FedEx.

If you recruited the entire US freight industry to move SD cards for you, the throughput would be on the order of 500 exabits—half a zettabit—per second. To match that transfer rate digitally, you’d need take half a million of those petabit cables.


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