The Evolving Internet: A look ahead to 2025
Naresh Wadhwa, President and Country Manager, Cisco India and SAARC
Although the Internet is an integral part of existence in many parts of the world today, only one third of the world's population has ever 'surfed' online (almost five billion people haven't) and less than one-fifth of those who use the Internet do so regularly. Therefore, it is hard to predict the Internet's evolution, from who will have access, how, when, and at what price in future. Uncertainty continues on the Internet's role as an engine for innovation and creation of commercial, social, and human value.
As users, industry players, and policymakers, the interplay of decisions that we make today and in the near future will determine the evolution of the internet and the shape it takes over the next 15 years.
Five powerful trends, already underway provide a common foundation for any future scenario on the Internet.
By 2025, most growth in Internet-related markets will have occurred outside of today's high income, or 'advanced,' economies. Emerging countries will account for more than half of the Internet economy, reflecting their rapid growth and the desire to 'catch up' in Internet use.
According to a report on the 'Evolving Internet' by Cisco and the Monitor Group’s Global Business Network, Internet traffic will continue to be heavier in advanced markets with higher per capita expenditure in and around the Internet. However, the dynamics and global composition of the market will be dramatically changed by emerging countries.
Governance of the Internet will retain the loose structure, despite pressures for greater control that will arise from occasional Internet disruptions, including malicious ones. The absence of any viable global governance formula or alternative in terms of institutional structure, will keep the set of rules currently governing the Internet fundamentally unchanged between now and 2025.
'Digital natives'-people raised on the Internet since the late 1990's-will relate to it in markedly different ways than most of today's adults. Members of these web- savvy 'Net generations' will view the Internet as an extender of their own cognitive capabilities and as a portal to virtual experience. (Some studies suggest that this might lead to a significant shift in brain function) They will consider the Internet as part of their ambient environment and think about it as a general service platform like conversation or thinking.
Today's QWERTY keyboard will no longer be the primary means of relating to the Internet. A combination of voice recognition, bio-sensing, gestural interfaces, touch-screen versatility and other technologies will allow inputting data and commands without keys, leading to an explosion in the number of people using the Internet.
Consumers will pay (or not) for Internet connectivity in very different ways. As high-bandwidth applications explode, the need to allocate available network capacity efficiently across time and users will be a major concern. The spread of wireless connectivity will open up new pricing models for network access. One-size-fits-all bandwidth options will be the exception rather than the norm.
Axes of uncertainty:
Other drivers of change which are highly uncertain yet important influences on the Internet’s future, can be organized along three axes:
A) Network build-out: Choices made by the national and state governments will affect network build-out and spread of wireless options. Public investment in backbone or gap-filling networks, spectrum allocation, and provision of infrastructure for fiber deployment or wireless transmitters, will also influence network build-out. Government policies will have a direct affect on the incentives of network operators investing in expansion and improvements of both fixed and wireless networks.
Decisions that seem unrelated or tangential to the objective of network build-out could have major effects on private investment. Some of these policy, regulatory, and licensing decisions will influence the mix and relative bargaining power of various stakeholders. This will create opportunities for, or barriers to, competition between entrants and incumbents, wired and wireless, and short-term and long-term objectives.
B) Technology adoption: National objectives, such as the protection of domestic champions or creation of information and communication technology (ICT) clusters, can effect (often negatively, at least in the short term) the speed of technology adoption. Given the number of potential Internet users waiting in the wings, technological progress that reduces costs could have dramatic effects on the shape of the Internet in 2025. Areas of uncertainty and opportunity for technological progress include network capacity, wireless capabilities, and security protection.
C) User behavior: Choices that users-both individuals and businesses make, will shape the overall demand for Internet access, devices, applications, and content. Tradeoffs and sensitivities center on price elasticity, ease of use, security concerns, and convergence or divergence in demand patterns across regions and user segments.
Global economic prosperity, GDP growth, and income distribution trends across and within countries will help translate broader preferences into actual choices and effective demand. The economy will influence choices based on perception of need and evolution of preferences-including generational differences.
The interplay of these uncertainties can result in many plausible scenarios for the Internet’s path through 2025 as under:
Fluid frontiers: Here the Internet becomes pervasive and centrifugal. Technology continues to make connectivity and devices more affordable (in spite of limited investment in network build-out). Global entrepreneurship and fierce competition ensure that the needs and demands from across the world are met quickly and from equally diverse setups and locations.
Insecure growth: Here, users-individuals and business alike, are scared away from intensive reliance on the Internet. Relentless cyber attacks driven by wide-ranging motivations defy the preventive capabilities of governments and international bodies. Secure alternatives emerge, but are expensive.
Short of promise: This is a frugal world where prolonged economic stagnation in many countries takes its toll on the spread of the Internet. Technology offers no compensating surprises. Protectionist policy responses to economic weakness make matters worse-both in economic terms and network technology adoption.
Bursting at the seams: The demand for IP-based services is enormous in this world. Capacity constraints and occasional bottlenecks create a gap between the expectations and reality of Internet use. International technology standards don’t come to pass partly due to a global backlash against decades of U.S. technology dominance.
The Internet of the future will be larger and have a greater impact on society spreading beyond large cities in emerging countries into villages and rural areas. The process of physical, social, commercial, and psychological convergence will continue to accelerate with wide-ranging implications. As flexible interfaces erode language barriers, the Internet will become comfortably multilingual. Applications will spread quickly regardless of cultural origin and address local preferences, appealing to virtual groups with affinities not driven by conventional parameters.
Over the next 15 years, the Internet will expand in both depth and breadth, as the range of active stakeholders widens. While the potential challenges are enormous, so are the opportunities. Both business leaders and policymakers can harness the Internet and broadband to serve broader economic and social objectives. Regardless of how the future unfolds, exploring and rehearsing divergent and plausible futures for the Internet can help shape it for the better.