The internet in 10 years time

2008-10-08 09:16
Arthur Goldstuck

The next 10 years in the life of the internet must be seen in the context of the last 10 years. And it's going to be less about the technology than about the people who use it.

In 1998, the number of internet users in South Africa passed the million mark for the first time, almost doubling over the previous year. Before long, it seemed, everyone would be online.

The number doubled again in the next two years, and internet nirvana appeared imminent. But then growth ground to a near-halt, and the year 2000 total of 2.4 million users will have doubled again only by the end of 2009.

This is despite the fact that we saw a revolution in access technologies in the past decade, with the slow modems of 1998 giving away to fixed line broadband in the form of ADSL and wireless broadband in flavours ranging from 3G to iBurst to WiMAX.

From a speed limit of 56kbps, which condemned you to calling up a typical online banking page in about 30 to 60 seconds or more, the speed limit for ordinary home users now is a blazing 4Mbps for ADSL and up to 7.2Mbps for 3G. In both cases, that same page appears to load instantaneously.

The result is that it is no longer about the technology we use, but rather what we do with that technology. As of 2008, despite those apparently amazing speeds, we are still severely hamstrung - or rather, bottlenecked - by the fact that we have both a speed limit and a data download limit.

The typical user has a limit or cap of either 1Gb of data or 3Gb - often hyped as allowing so many thousand pages of a book or so many hundred songs to be downloaded. The truth is that, if you regularly use some of the internet's more data-hungry applications, like Facebook or Second Life, that cap will barely last a week.

But from 2009 to 2012, the future will begin to arrive a whole lot faster. Right now, the key resource that dictates data allocation and cost in South Africa is the SAT3/SAFE undersea cable controlled by Telkom.

It provides a total of 30 Gigabits per second bandwidth to SA, and is doled out by Telkom as a precious gift.

Bandwidth will have grown

In July 2009, the new Seacom undersea cable, commissioned primarily by second network operator Neotel, will enter service. It's bandwidth capacity? 1,2 Terrabits per second, or 40 times that of the present SAT3 cable.

SAT3 is likely to be upgraded to its maximum capacity, around 320 Gigabytes per second, by 2010. And sometime between 2010 and 2012, depending on how fast Government Time catches up to real time, the new Infraco cable, initiated by the Department of Public Enterprises, will enter service with a bandwidth promise of about 3,8 Terrabytes per second.

The EASSy cable, being planned by a consortium of East African countries and telecoms players, may add another 680 Gigabit per second by then.

This means that five years from now, by 2013, our miserly 30Gbps of bandwidth will have grown to 6Tbps, or 200 times what we have now. That will have five dramatic effects:

  • It will bring down the cost of bandwidth to something closer to its real cost, rather than what an elite market is willing to tolerate;

  • It will make the current concept of data caps seem absurd, as the cost of each additional Megabyte of data comes down to fractions of a cent, rather than a few Rand;

  • It will speed up internet adoption as cheap bandwidth adds to the momentum of the Government's universal access policies. But don't expect the masses to flock to the use of broadband, when the infrastructure does not exist to support widespread computer access.

  • It will make high definition video or TV via the internet a reality, bringing down the cost of video distribution, making video-on-demand (choosing any movie you want to watch at any time) a reality, and possibly even allowing personal TV stations to come into being. An 8Mbps connection, which is likely to be fairly common by 2013, will be good enough for receiving DVD-quality video content. By 2018, we may well have speeds, probably for more affluent users, of up to 27Mbps, which is ideal for high definition (HD) video content - right now the ultimate in visual content quality.

  • The pace of innovation on the internet and in broadcasting will accelerate, and South Africa's competitiveness in the digital economy will rise as internet users take advantage of the fast, cheap environment to experiment, innovate and compete online.

    One unforeseen (by most) consequence of all this bandwidth is that available content will mushroom even more dramatically than it has in the past decade. The information glut will become an information slum, and it will seem impossible for individuals to find their way to the best or most useful content, or at least to find their way through the useless content that will litter the internet, and possibly even TV.

  • The solution to this will be information mapping at a level, on a scale and with built-in intelligence such as we have never seen before. An entire industry sector will emerge around the concept of mapping information, with the likes of Google and Wikipedia eventually being seen as the forerunners, but not the owners, of that space.

    Thanks to two seemingly unconnected phenomena - the growing digital divide that results from illiteracy and lack of computer literacy, and the apparent shortening attention spans of youths and young adults, devices will also evolve to take into account the need for a more visual way of interacting with information.

    All screens, from phones to laptops to kiosks, will become touch screens, and all menus will be icon-based. Standards bodies will eventually decide on universal meanings for a wide range of information icons.

    The cellphone will no longer be the means through which mobile networks manage their customers, but rather through which cellphone owners manage their information and communications lives, choosing which provider they will use for which purpose.

    Airtime contracts will give way to data contracts that allow the user to make calls using Voice over IP, or voice over the internet, which consumes data capacity rather than airtime - since all phones will have VoIP built in, and the cost of data will have fallen far enough to make this the logical means of making calls.

    At the same time, digital TV will become the primary means for the mass market to interact with information, but with a lot of help from their cellphones, which will be a more effective return path or feedback mechanism than the set-top boxes being envisaged by the Government right now.

    Mass adoption of the internet

    Once cellphones and digital TVs can talk to each other, in the electronic sense, both devices will come into their own as information access, sharing and transmission devices.

    This combination will also allow the cellphone to come into its own as an internet access device. Right now, one needs to have a working knowledge of the internet to be able to access it on the cellphone, which why internet-enabled cellphoines are not creating a dramatic rise in internet usage by the have-nots of our society.

    Digital TV will allow for an experience of a version of the internet on a large screen, which will provide the experience that can then be translated to the small screen. This means that, by 2018, we will only begin to see mass adoption of the internet in South Africa.

    While the digital have-nots begin to become haves, it will just get better and better for the haves - as it has been for the past five years. One thing that will get worse is the availability of radio spectrum, which means that we will have traffic jams in the transmission of wireless broadband signals.

    As the demand for data usage and speed rises, and the availability of wireless bandwidth remains static, the first moves will begin towards something called fibre to the home (FTTH), which is essentially an extremely high capacity line running into the home directly from the fibre optic networks that are being laid down in South Africa?s urban streets right now.

    While telecoms operators have their hands full getting their cables in the ground in order to support data services to corporations and to keep data moving fast between the base stations that support their wireless networks, no one has time to think about FTTH.

    But with the arrival not only of cheaper and faster bandwidth, but also of content that demands even faster bandwidth, FTTH looks like the only long-term solution. Expect to see business plans for FTTH emerge by 2013, and the first roll-outs to begin by 2018.

    Meanwhile, due to the low cost of bandwidth, free WiFi or WIMAX hotspots will be available at most commercial hospitality or entertainment establishments, as a marketing tool or drawcard for an increasingly data-oriented society.

    That will be one of the potential positive spin-offs of the 2010 World Cup, as all of Hospitality South Africa tries to find a way to attract visitors to their offerings.

    But the 2010 World Cup will not transform South Africa on its own, even if it ends up taking the credit.

    It will have occurred at a time when a revolution in access technologies and cost of access had already begun. The World Cup will be an early beneficiary, and may even fool us into believing that we have finally arrived in the future that the internet has allowed us to envisage for the past decade. But that future is still ten years away.

  • Arthur Goldstuck heads the World Wide Worx research organisation - a pioneer in the South African market in the use of the internet as a tool for productivity.

    Send your comments to Arthur.

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