Forecasting the Net

29 Sep 2006

The Internet in the future will be a low-cost network that opens up global economic opportunities, while also posing a threat to privacy and provoking acts of terrorist violence.

Sort of.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just polled Internet "experts" on the Internet in 2020.

Given the pace of technology change and the potential for disruption, you might think it an exercise in pure guesswork. Certainly, the survey result which attracted the most headlines - that the Net will foster an underclass of violent Luddite refuseniks - doesn't give much confidence.

Yet under inspection the methodology is surprisingly sound, having been based on previous studies, including one attempt at predicting the Net's development which turned out to be surprisingly accurate.

Using these earlier surveys, the authors drew up seven scenarios and presented them to the 742 respondents, drawn from industry associations, academia, consultancies and business.

The result‾ The raw statistical findings are rather bland: for example, 42% agree and 57% disagree that "English will displace other languages".

But the discussions around the findings, which are posted online in full (see, are much more illuminating.

In particular, the scenario that should command the attention of ISPs and telcos is that of a "global, low-cost network", with full interoperability and a mobile Internet that is available anywhere, any time. Result: 56% agreed and 43% disagreed.


For the most part, respondents are optimistic this can be achieved, driven by spreading wireless connectivity and the lower costs enabled by Moore's Law. John Browning of First Tuesday, for one, writes that while it won't be perfectly smooth, the Net will certainly be "better and deeper than today."

But the reservations are telling. Some foreshadow a "tiered" Net, others worry about the domination of powerful carriers or point to the millions who lack access to all kinds of basic facilities.

New Zealand consultant Andy Williamson says national and international regulators need to impose network regulation "that privileges public good over commercial reward."

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