Algebra proves useful after all, boosts Wi-Fi speed by 16x

Listen up, kids: stay in school. Learn algebra. It may seem utterly useless, and 415.8 / x = 4.2 percent of the time, it is. But just wait until you're trying to play a game or stream a video over a terrible wireless connection, 'cause with the magic of algebra, you can boost your Wi-Fi speed by a factor of 10 or 20 or more.

The reason that terrible Wi-Fi connections are terrible isn't usually related to slow speeds inherent in the connection itself: most of the time, the thing to blame is packet loss. Packets are individual little chunks of data that are flowing all the time between your wireless router (or a cell tower) and your smartphone or laptop or whatever.

For me, it helps to think of packets as frogs, and the journey they have to take as one big game of Frogger. If you're sitting right next to your wireless router, the packetfrogs don't have to cross any streets to get to you, so they all make it, and you get a fast connection.

But now let's say you go across the house, and suddenly there are all manner of walls and pipes and moving people and electrical wiring and microwave ovens in the way, and the journey of the packetfrogs becomes much more dangerous. The greater the distance, and the more stuff in between you and the source of the wireless signal, the more "lanes" the packetfrogs have to hop across, and the more dangerous the things are barreling through these lanes. Inevitably, some packetfrogs never make it, winding up as little squish marks splattered throughout the ether.

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If a packetfrog doesn't make it to your computer after a certain amount of time, your Web browser is like "crap, we lost one!" and sends a panicked signal back to the router (in the form of another packetfrog) asking that the first packetfrog be resent. And until all of the packetfrogs involved in the construction of whatever website you're trying to visit have arrived, you can't finish loading it.

What ends up happening, then, is that more squished packetfrogs means more back and forth between your computer and your router, and everything much much longer to load. Even if you're just losing (say) 1% of your packetfrogs, the actual speed decreases by far more than 1%, since so much information is required to replace each one of them. A good, stable network typically experiences 2-3% packetfrog squish, while a network that you're trying to access from a car or a train typically loses 5% or more.

Researchers from MIT, the University of Porto in Portugal, Harvard University, Caltech, and Technical University of Munich have invented a new way of transmitting packets that relies on algebra to significantly mitigate the consequences of packet loss, by turning groups of packets into algebraic equations and sending them in groups. Instead of sending packets a, b and c separately from a router to a computer, the software instead sends packets a, b and c together in a group, along with an algebraic equation like a + b = c. This way, if any one of those three packets doesn't make it, the computer doesn't have to ask for a replacement: it can just solve for whichever packet is missing. For a computer, this sort of math is a cinch, so it can be done quickly and efficiently.

The upshot of transmitting packets in this way is that you don't have to worry about packet loss anymore. This won't boost your speeds if you're sitting right next to your router, but it has the potential to make things massively better if you're not. In fact, the worse your connection is, the better this method works: in a typical outdoor environment at MIT, using the algebraic packet method boosted wireless speeds from one Mbps to 16 Mbps. On a train, the improvement was even more pronounced, going from 0.5 Mbps to 13.5 Mbps, which is about 2,700% better.

We're happy to be able to tell you that several companies have already licensed this technology, and wide deployment is expected to occur within two or three years. "Deployment," remember, just consists of teaching your wireless device and your router to cooperate doing algebra, so we're talking about something as simple as a software update or an app that will instantly and painlessly make your wireless life way, way better.

Code On, via Tech Review

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