Is there a speed limit to the internet? Here's how fast WiFi can go

The internet speed record currently stands at 319 Terabits per second.
Chris Young

How fast can the internet go?

5G is already greatly improving the downloading and uploading speed of mobile devices, and internet satellite projects such as SpaceX's Starlink and Amazon's Project Kuiper will make the internet more accessible to people all over the world.

Though 5G speeds depend on many factors, in theory, it should allow users to reach speeds of up to 10Gbps on their devices and enjoy latency speeds as low as 1 millisecond (ms) — at 10Gbps, a user could download a large 4K movie file in less than a minute.

Of course, there's a long way to go before 5G reaches its upper limit. But how about the upper limit of the internet in general? Can we even envision the capabilities of 6G and beyond?

What is the current speed limit for the internet?

In July last year, we reported that Japanese engineers blew the previous internet speed record out of the water by almost doubling it with a data transmission rate of 319 Terabits per second (Tb/s).

Though the team that broke the record used existing fiber-optic infrastructure, it's important to highlight the fact that their record was possible thanks to a few state-of-the-art add-ons. The researchers used four advanced glass "cores" instead of the standard cores used for conventional data transmission, allowing them to reach the unprecedented speeds.

This means that integrating the new system into existing infrastructure should be easier than the previous record holder's experimental photonic chip, say, but it would still require a massive and costly infrastructure overhaul. For our purposes, it's important to highlight that internet connections for ordinary consumers currently max out at 10 Gb/s for home internet.

Is there an overall "speed limit" for the internet and electronic devices?

Still, speeds shown in the laboratory will eventually come to consumers and we can, and will, go beyond the 319 Tb/s internet speed record set by researchers in Japan last year. As a post by RCRWireless points out, there are two main ways researchers can push the bandwidth limit to new heights: thicker cables with tens of thousands of strands, multiplying the amount of data carried by orders of magnitude; and pushing transmission frequencies higher into the electromagnetic spectrum, even to ultraviolet radiation and possibly beyond.

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Beyond that, the final stumbling block for the internet and electronic devices will likely be an as-yet-unknown unsurpassable technological hurdle. In theory, the internet could run as fast as the speed of light, meaning it may cap out at the same speed limit as optoelectronics devices. These use light to control electricity, making them the fastest electronics devices in the world.

Last month, researchers from TU Wien, TU Graz, and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, calculated the ultimate speed limit for optoelectronics, the point at which the laws of quantum mechanics prevent microchips from becoming any faster. Using state-of-the-art lasers and advanced computer modeling, the global team of scientists found that the upper-speed limit of optoelectronics is one Petahertz, which is equivalent to a million Gigahertz. To go any faster would be to break the laws of quantum physics. The researchers stated, however, that unknown technological hurdles will likely impede us from ever reaching that speed.

So, while the upper speed limit of the internet is, in theory, the same as the speed of light, technology will likely max out before we can get anywhere near it. As a point of reference, fiber optic cables reach about two-thirds the speed of light in a vacuum. That's still incredibly impressive, and even maxing out the potential of fiber optic will bring change on an unprecedented global scale.