How to vanquish packet loss

We all want faster Internet. No matter how many promises of blazing speeds our providers give us, it never seems like enough. But did you know that some basic algebra can help give wireless networks a boost and clear those clogged pipes, all without any new infrastructure?

One of the reasons for the slowdown is due to packet loss. When networks drop packets, it can make the connection seem like a ridiculous crawl. And contributing to the traffic jam is the fact that they keep trying to create and resend them.

Well, the big giant brains at MIT figured something out: Instead of sending actual packets of data, what if the network sent algebraic equations that “describe” the packets instead? If a one drops out, the receiver can just interpolate the missing packet. It’s like, instead of solving for x, it solves for the missing packet. Coded TCP was tested in a MIT lab and, says project lead and MIT professor Muriel Medard, this process was more efficient — way more. Apparently the processing power it took to tackle those equations is negligible. That means even less powerful devices — like your tablet or smartphone — would be able to do the job, and quite well.

Medard saw a bandwidth of 1 Mbps bolt up to 16 Mbps, all without any new hardware. And even in a network with five percent packet loss (two percent is typical), the dismal 0.5 Mbps sped up to 13.5 Mbps. Of course, this only works on networks with packet loss — there was no improvement in networks that didn’t have any — but given the fact that packet loss is actually quite common, this is a genius move that has the potential to transform our experience of the Internet. And it’s all based on basic algebraic math. Who woulda thunk it?

Coded TCP is still in research mode, so we won’t see any these benefits in the immediate future — maybe in about two or three years — but it does give us hope. No matter how fast our technologies get, we have one more trick up our sleeve that could turbo-boost that throughput.

[Via Technology Review]