When connectivity becomes a right

07 Jul 2015

Unless you live on Mars, you have probably noticed that you are becoming ever more dependent on being connected. And by “being connected” I mean not just having mobile phone coverage but becoming more reliant on access to other things, systems and people via any number of devices through a network infrastructure of some type.

Your smartphone has become the center of your own personal network. It has the power of a mainframe computer of thirty years ago, and because of the myriad of applications that run on it, you have unprecedented access to any information that your heart, or brain, desires - and all in a matter of nanoseconds.

It has become, for the time being, the collection and distribution point for other devices that you wear, that are in your home and car and soon that will be inside you. It already controls your home appliances, door locks, security systems and appliances and will soon help you control your driverless car.

It books your travel, orders your groceries, manages your communications with other people, gives you personal advice, directions on how to get from point A to point B, manages your well-being, sleep patterns and eating habits and even tells you when you break wind (in case you don’t notice).

Are we becoming so incompetent that we need to be told when and how to brush our teeth, wash our clothes, change a diaper, go for a walk, make babies and boil an egg?

With the Internet of Things and machine-to-machine communications exploding like a newly formed galaxy, we are close to being swallowed up by a technology wave of nuclear proportions.

Businesses, governments and security agencies are becoming reliant on the data we and the machines are producing - and the more data being produced, the more systems we will need to process it and the more network capacity to transport it.

But even though our smartphones, wearables, apps and IoT devices are all parts of the new digital ecosystem around us they are pretty well useless without the means to have them all communicating.

We still rely on copper and fiber in fixed broadband networks, and Wi-Fi, 2G, 3G and LTE on mobile networks. And we are just starting to talk about 5G, but that is years away from being rolled out.

This hodge-podge mix of comms technology is supposed to keep us constantly connected - but it doesn’t. One wonders when it will no longer be able to cope, or when those dependent on connectivity start to get really annoyed. For too long we have been kidding ourselves that speed is more important than capacity and consistency of service. Being connected anywhere at anytime is fast becoming the criteria for everyone and those feeing deprived of this “right” could soon become a social force to be reckoned with.

Smart governments, already sensing the mood of poorly serviced communities, are placing greater emphasis on connectivity not only because they see the benefits it brings for GDP, healthcare and information distribution, but also because their populations are demanding it.

The really smart governments are doing everything in their power to smooth the way for private investment in better networks and even help fund them, as opposed to seeing them simply as a lucrative revenue stream. And they see the danger and strength of social media turning against them if a high level of connectivity is not available.

While deregulation and open competition may once have been seen as the best way to achieve network rollouts, it has also created an environment where rollouts have favored high-population areas where the best returns can be achieved, rather than offering contiguous service across the whole country.

Governments may soon be forced to review their own policies to encourage greater network and spectrum sharing between operators, e.g. national roaming, or be forced to either invest in broader coverage themselves, or even start acquiring operators with a view to rationalizing and nationalizing them. PTTs were once viewed as being key to national security - mobile networks may soon be seen as being key to political security.

This article first appeared in Telecom Asia May/June 2015 edition

Tony Poulos is a regular contributor to Telecom Asia and anchor for the Telecom Asia Video Channel

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