How the internet will continue to shape our lives

The influence of the web on our daily lives expands by the day, writes David Eden

People try out the virtual reality glasses by Oculus at the Facebook Innovation Hub in Berlin. Kay Nietfeld / EPA
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Did you know that there are around 1 billion WhatsApp users and more than 80 million Netflix users in the world, and that an average person spends about four hours on their mobile device every day?

Figures such as this show how reliant people have become on communicating and consuming content over the internet. Yet it is probably fair to say that for many people the internet is simply a utility like electricity or gas, which we tend to take for granted. With World Internet Day coming up on October 29, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what it takes to keep us connected and enable us to lead the digital lives that we’ve become accustomed to.

With the continual emergence of devices and applications, the crucial question is: will the internet be able to cope with the extra pressure of data-hungry technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), driverless cars and virtual reality (VR)?

Real-time analytics of supply chains and equipment, robotic machinery, portable health monitoring and retail inventory tracking, biometric and facial-recognition locks, and other IoT applications require superfast connectivity and innumerable connections. In 2006, there were “just” 2 billion connected objects. In 2020, there will be 50 billion – about seven smart objects for every person. The amount of data traffic these objects will generate could cause network-wide issues if things were to go wrong. There was a taste of this last week when a denial-of-service attack using IoT devices brought down the American domain name service provider Dyn.

As the IoT hype becomes a reality, policymakers need to start thinking about IoT traffic differently from traditional data traffic, due to the potentially disastrous consequences of a network failure on transport systems and health care.

Another connected technology that has been in the headlines recently is driverless cars. Yet the many incidents experienced by Google, Tesla and other companies testing auto­nomous vehicles show that it is still early days. For self-driving cars to become truly auto­nomous, these companies must look at the connectivity this technology will rely on.

There needs to be a deeper understanding of the demands that the data traffic generated by, ultimately, tens of thousands of self-driving cars will put on network infrastructures. When the autonomous vehicles revolution happens will depend on the availability of ubiquitous, intelligent and highly robust networks, which will underpin the safety and reliability of these vehicles.

The pressure felt by the world’s networks is not just about the volume of connections, but also about bandwidth. In 2020, video will represent more than 80 per cent of all internet traffic, with nearly 1 million minutes of video content crossing the internet every second.

With more and more content being developed by the sports, television and film industries for the new generation of VR headsets, we’re set to see a 60-fold increase in VR traffic between now and 2020. VR requires five times more bandwidth than HDTV to create an immersive user experience. While the companies that own and operate the infrastructure behind the internet have the bandwidth to support VR, home broadband often does not, leading to a jittery viewing experience. That is why we need to see investment in very low-latency, high-throughput “last-mile” networks – that is, the cable that connects to users’ premises – to cope with the demands of VR. Only then can the industry ensure the brilliant, immersive VR user experience that consumers expect.

IoT, VR and autonomous vehicles are causing networks to increase in complexity, with wireless technologies layered on top of wired infrastructures. The convenient, seemingly ubiquitous nature of Wi-Fi and 4G means that, in the eyes of many, the future is wireless.

It remains to be seen if 5G will materialise as quickly as first thought because of the major investments needed by mobile operators, and subscribers’ reluctance to pay a premium for ultrafast connectivity. Whether Wi-Fi or 5G, wireless technologies will undoubtedly play a key role in delivering the next-generation internet. Yet, in my view, wired connections will remain a necessary long-term investment.

Even by 2020 – when there will be more than 4 billion internet users – fibre-optic networks will be capable of carrying far more data and bandwidth than wireless alternatives.

To provide the critical connectivity foundations that IoT, VR and yet-to-be-invented internet-enabled technologies rely on, a huge amount of work is going on in the telecoms industry. By rethinking how networks are managed globally and bandwidth is optimised, we can ensure that the internet won’t buckle under the pressure of ever-growing volumes of data criss-crossing the world every second.

Still, with different connected technologies now permeating all aspects of our private and professional lives, and the incredible rate of technology innovation showing no signs of slowing down, it’s easy to take ubiquitous superfast connectivity for granted. The next time you speak to a friend or a colleague over Skype, upload a photo on to Instagram, or share an update on LinkedIn, take a moment to think about how different the world would be if there were no internet to power our always-connected lives.

David Eden is a future technologist and product innovator at Tata Communications