Last week The Guardian asked me to write an article from a futurist’s perspective commenting on the debate on Britain’s internet priorities. They published it under the title For better internet connectivity, we must invest in bandwidth.
Below is the full text of the article. I will write more on this topic later, as it is so critical for nations to take intelligent, differentiated, relevant strategies to broadband investment in order to create prosperous economies and societies.
For better internet connectivity, we must invest in bandwidth
In a digital world, high download speeds are less important than capacity – those who remain offline risk further isolation
Our future will be connected. Humanity is in the process of transitioning into a world in which we can be better understood as a richly connected collective than a set of individuals. Connectivity will drive our prosperity, both economic and social.
Recognising this, governments around the world are all seeking to provide increased bandwidth and speed to their populations at the moment. What they can’t agree on is which part of that process should be prioritised: the current debate in Britain over the choice between breadth of access and speed is a case in point.
One of the potential threats of this newly connected world is that it will increase the divide between the haves and have-nots, as opportunities flow to those who have access and the skills to tap into the digital world, while those who remain offline get isolated further. It is therefore absolutely critical to ensure that availability to bandwidth within and across nations remains as broad as possible.
The problem is that there is a critical and poorly understood distinction between speed and capacity. High download speeds are for most applications less important than capacity, in measuring the amount of data that can flow. For example, while mobile data speeds can be high, in most cases mobile data capacity is low, meaning that fixed data pipes are important for many applications.
Individuals, businesses, industries and communities across the nation will have different priorities. Governments must not focus on any one indicator such as speed, but balance the varying needs of their constituents.
It is difficult to foresee a time when our appetite for increased bandwidth will be sated. The greater than 50% increase in IP traffic over each of the past five years is likely to continue for decades.
The first and most obvious domain for increased bandwidth is video. Video will be everywhere, from mobile phones through billboards, table tops, and possibly even clothes. While HD television is a relatively recent introduction, we will undoubtedly soon aspire to watch Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTV) which requires up to eight times the bandwidth. Inevitably, television will shift to delivery over IP, comprising not just today’s channels, but also access to an entire world of news and entertainment.
In future an increasing proportion of work will be done virtually, much more than just software development and digital design. Telesurgery already allows specialist doctors to operate on remote patients, and mining trucks and equipment are increasingly operated by drivers hundreds of miles away.
As bandwidth improves, insurance companies are becoming comfortable with doctors diagnosing patients at a distance. However, the biggest opportunity for bandwidth in health is for patient monitoring to provide detailed information. External sensors can gather information on a wealth of factors including activity, heart rate, and breath composition, while “intelligent pills” can transmit data on patients’ internal conditions.
As more elderly people move into care facilities, millions could be transmitting an extraordinary amount of data each day, with doctors being immediately alerted to any irregularities. Responses could be emergency calls or simple changes in medication.
Throughout their education children will be richly connected, to educational material, to remote teachers, to peers, and to learning networks. As the jobs of tomorrow rapidly supplant the jobs of yesterday, those who have lived immersed in digital worlds through their education will have a massive advantage over others.
The domain that is likely to drive the biggest increase in demand for bandwidth in coming years is the “internet of things”, in which ultimately billions of devices and sensors will gather information on every aspect of our natural and built environment. Water and gas pipes will have sensors at every point. Roads and pavements will track traffic and incipient cracks, and soil conditions for every square foot of sensitive crops will be monitored.
Whether we like it or not, this is the future of things to come. Governments must recognise the diversity of what people need from bandwidth, and build balanced programs to support their nations’ connected futures.