By Ricardo Evangelista
In the distant year of 490BC a Greek messenger raced from Marathon, the site where a Greek army had just fought and beaten the invading Persians, to Athens, more than 25 miles away, to deliver the good news. Many centuries later, in 1896, this feat was celebrated during the first ever Olympic games, where athletes from several countries competed to cover a similar distance in the fastest possible time. Since then, countless runners from all around the world completed marathons, with the current world record, held by the Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, standing at just under two hours.
However, the haste at which even the fastest human can run pales in comparison with how fast information circulates on the internet. Streams of data flow through cables and electromagnetic waves, generated and received by cellular masts, allowing us to routinely send emails, make video calls and access vast amounts of information. Being able to send and receive data, in a fast and reliable way, regardless of the distance covered, is as important in our age as it was in the 5th century BC. Vast resources are being invested to enhance our ability to communicate.
Today it is common for information to travel, almost at the speed of light, through optical cables; roughly one foot per nanosecond, and this is why the length of the cable becomes important. In 2010, a New York hedge fund spent $300m on an 827 miles long underground cable, linking the Nasdaq data centre, in New Jersey, to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, thorough the shortest possible route, under lakes, rivers and mountains, in order to reduce the latency of the orders it was placing to buy futures contracts. The reduction, in comparison with the available option, was merely three nanoseconds (a blink of an eye takes 200 nanoseconds). A cost of $100m per nanosecond is not cheap, but still worth it for the hedge fund, allowing it to buy and sell futures contracts just ahead of other traders; a great example of the old saying “time is money”!
Soon 5G technology will be available almost everywhere. It will enable the so-called internet of things. Everything will be connected to everything else, with information circulating at the dizzying speed of ten gigabits per second – 100 times faster than the current 4G networks. Meanwhile, SpaceX is creating a network of thousands of small low orbit satellites, called Starlink, aiming to provide complete global internet coverage by 2022. As light travels even faster in the vacuum of space than it does through fibre optic, and the satellites will be on a low orbit, there will be even less latency than through standard 5G networks. Starlink’s business plan estimates the firm will eventually generate 30 to 50 billion dollars per year, just in premium stock exchange memberships.
As we can see, the future promises to be more technology dependent and interconnected than ever. Like the messenger that ran from Marathon to Athens, today’s businesses and individuals are committed to sharing and obtaining information quickly and effectively, everywhere and all the time; no matter at what cost.