FedEx's file-transfer capacity versus the Internet

Today on XKCD's "What If…?", Randall Monroe runs the numbers of when and whether the Internet's throughput will ever exceed FedEx's sneakernet file-transfer capacity (one interesting note here: why not treat FedEx's trucks and planes full of hard-drives and SD cards as part of the Internet? After all, you book your FedEx pickup over TCP/IP, track it over TCP/IP, and pay for it over TCP/IP).

Cisco estimates that total internet traffic currently averages 167 terabits per second. FedEx has a fleet of 654 aircraft with a lift capacity of 26.5 million pounds daily. A solid-state laptop drive weighs about 78 grams and can hold up to a terabyte.

That means FedEx is capable of transferring 150 exabytes of data per day, or 14 petabits per second—almost a hundred times the current throughput of the internet.

If you don't care about cost, this ten-kilogram shoebox can hold a lot of internet

We can improve the data density even further by using MicroSD cards:

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.)

So the interesting thing here is the implicit critique of cloud computers. Leave aside the fact that a cloud computer is like a home computer, except that you're only allowed to use it if the phone company says so.

Instead, consider for a moment whether streaming — especially wireless streaming — of media that you're likely to play more than once makes economic or technological sense. Your hard drive brims with capacity. It costs nothing to use (after you've paid for it once, and leaving aside the electrical bill). It is vastly faster than any wide-area network link. Contrast with wireless bandwidth: there's only one RF spectrum, and you have to share it with everyone within range of your device.

Increasing the hard drive in your laptop does nothing to the storage capacity of my laptop, but increasing your demands on the wireless spectrum comes at the expense of my use of that same spectrum.

On the other hand, it's easy to see why telcos would love the idea that every play of "your" media involves another billable event. Media companies, too — it's that prized, elusive urinary-tract-infection business model at work, where media flows in painful, expensive drips instead of healthy, powerful gushes.

The progeny of this hellish marriage is the non-neutral Internet connection where a telco offers to spy on, and slow down, its users' connections — but selectively, so that the media from a "preferred partner" comes in more quickly, and doesn't count against a bandwidth cap. This is especially virulent where telcos are entertainment companies — Comcast and Rogers and so on, all champing to freeze out services like Netflicks by metering its bandwidth, but freeflagging downloads from their in-house competing services.

FedEx Bandwidth