Nº 3 2015 > Transforming
Transforming Telecoms: From the Past into the Future
Over the 150 years since ITU was established, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have changed beyond all recognition from standalone telegraphs to today’s ’smart’ communications embedded, often invisibly, in the environment around us. Telecommunications, information technology (IT) and computing have become infinitely more converged, powerful and versatile. As the price of handsets has fallen and their functionality increased, the majority of people on the planet will soon hold in their hand a device with higher processing power than the most powerful computers from the 1980s. The networks, devices and Internet of today already look completely different to those of the early millennium. This article identifies several key trends that have transformed telecommunications/ICTs over recent decades, and considers how they may contribute to our networked world in the near future.
Mobile, miniature and multiple: Connected devices of course have become portable, smaller and more numerous (Figure 1). In future, we are likely to enjoy even higher speed connectivity while on the move, roaming seamlessly between networks anywhere, anytime, via any device with what has been called ’ubiquitous connectivity’. Moore’s Law continues to hold surprisingly consistent (even though Gordon Moore himself recently, in March 2015, foresaw his Law “dying within the next decade or so”). Technology analyst Mary Meeker estimates that each new computing cycle has typically generated around ten times the installed base of the previous computing cycle (Figure 1). By 2015, the number of connected devices worldwide was estimated to be at around 15.8 billion, outnumbering connected people by a ratio of two to one. By 2020, this ratio could be at least six to one, transforming our concept of the Internet, as well as our connected society, forever.
Mobile phones designed primarily for voice connectivity on the move have expanded to become our portable news outlet, camera, video, wallet, social network and phone directory, compass, metal detector or even a crowdsourced seismometer (Figure 2). Now, if Google’s Ara project for a ’modular’ smartphone proves successful, phones may even ’go to pieces’ on us and disintegrate, overcoming the limitations of their hardware, as users will be able to swap parts (such as screens and cameras) while on the move.
In 2001, modern telecommunications and the Internet were credited with the death of distance, as the Internet and communications put people in touch the world over. Mobile phones may now result in the death of location — people can talk, work or surf entertainment wherever they are, regardless of any traditional locations for these activities (e.g. the workplace for work, social clubs or the home for entertainment).
The proliferation of devices and new forms of social media mean that the boundaries between people’s personal and professional lives are blurring (do you keep Facebook for friends and personal updates, and LinkedIn for colleagues?). Indeed, social media have transformed content creation from one-way ’one-to-many’ broadcasts to ’many-to-many’ interactive conversations, as people exchange news and views via a range of different platforms. Social media services (including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) are making communications between individuals more dynamic, interactive and real-time. Information is now a perishable product, with a shrinking lifespan, as web traffic now reflects trending, real-world events in real-time. Social media enables us to get in touch and stay in touch, while wondering whether our ’friends’ really are friends. There may not be a ’thumbs-down’ icon on Facebook yet, but the registration process for ’.sucks’ is proceeding apace.
Enter the Internet of Things: After more than a decade of debate, discussion and anticipation, the ’Internet of Things’ (IoT) may finally have arrived. According to the ITU Internet Report, 2005, IoT and our hyperconnected world encompasses a set of technological advances from different fields — wireless and mobile connectivity, miniaturization, nanotechnology, radio-frequency identification (RFID) and smart technologies. Advances in these technologies, taken together, could help realize a miniaturized, automated Internet of connected devices communicating regularly and relatively effortlessly through real-time updates in a fully connected environment. Debates continue as to how much M2M traffic will be communicated over the Internet, and the role of interoperability in this context. But M2M and the IoT open doors to communications — and data — on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Meanwhile, techniques such as Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Virtualization are helping make networks more scalable and flexible, allowing them to follow the waves of information coming from different services and applications more efficiently and dynamically.
Growth in the data universe: The flipside to this growing connectivity is growth in the size of the data universe. Partly due to the Internet of Things, the International Data Centre estimates that the digital universe is doubling in size every two years and will multiply tenfold between 2013 and 2020 — from 4.4 trillion gigabytes in 2013 to 44 trillion gigabytes in 2020. Currently, 60% of all data in the digital universe is attributed to industrialized ’mature’ markets such as Germany, Japan, and the United States, but by 2020, the percentage will flip, and emerging markets (including Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Russia) will account for the majority of data. Harnessing the power of the data universe, while introducing safeguards against potential abuse, is likely to be one of the most urgent challenges for the future.
The trends of growth in power, versatility and scale, look set to continue. But one thing is for sure — in the exciting worlds of telecoms and ICT, we never know what the future will bring.