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Universal Data Access

The internet is one of the transformational technologies to emerge from the twentieth century. Another is the mobile phone. These two platforms are now coming together and, as they do so, are bringing with them more opportunities for transformation. Certainly their convergence means that global connectivity – for many, the great goal of recent years – is almost upon us. It’s easy to see the attraction of this given that the ability to communicate and interact with billions of people has the potential to, quite literally, redesign society.

Today, it is perfectly possible to envisage a world where we will all be ‘connected’ – we will be able to communicate with anybody and everybody, anywhere they and we might be. Through these universal interconnections, we will train and learn, educate and entertain, buy and sell, trade and barter. As well as being connected to each other, we will have remote access to our machines (computers, electrical goods, boilers, water pumps and so on). Indeed, the whole ‘machine-to-machine’ concept is about to hit the big time – smart systems have the potential to reduce the overall impact we have on the environment by helping to regulate the temperature in our homes, monitor utilities, manage traffic flow and myriad other applications that will both reduce costs and increase sustainability. We will probably go on to do all sorts of other things via the internet that have not yet even been considered.

The click of a button

Ten years ago, there were around 700 million mobile devices, most of which didn’t connect to the World Wide Web, 370 million people had access to the internet, and the likes of Google (incorporated 1998) and Facebook (2004) were barely gathering momentum or unknown. There are now around 4.6 billion mobile devices worldwide, many of which do connect to the internet (mobile internet subscriptions have already overtaken fixed-line broadband) and internet penetration has grown to 76% in the US, 53% in Europe and many emerging economies are catching up quickly. Consider China, for example, where internet penetration has grown from 2% in 2000 to 27% in 2009. Today’s China not only has 370 million fixed-line subscribers and more than 530 million mobile subscribers but also has over 360 million internet users and has become the world’s biggest internet market, easily overtaking both the US and the whole of Western Europe. Internet access in South America is also on the rise, with Brazil now having more internet users than any European country. Without a doubt, connectivity is a global phenomenon.

All in all, around 1.8 billion people now have access to the internet. It has become a source of information and, increasingly importantly, entertainment. Although, in the West, access is primarily via fixed-line broadband connections at home or at work, the burgeoning take-up of mobile broadband connectivity is transforming the landscape and making access more convenient. This means that time spent online is growing substantially – to some extent at the expense of other, more traditional media. This is emphasised in a German study that suggested the internet’s share of media consumption time would grow from 4% in 2000 to 24% by 2015.

Shopping, learning, being entertained

As the internet is now being used for an increasing range of everyday activities, from shopping (56% of people in the US are reported to have bought products online in 2009) to banking, to sharing photos and watching TV, a host of interesting statistics abound. For example, Google currently runs over 1 million servers in data centres around the world, and processes over 1 billion search requests and twenty petabytes of user-generated data every day. The rise and rise of social networking continues to amaze: since its launch, Facebook has built up more than 500 million active users and, incredibly, 5% of all time online is currently spent on that website alone. It’s no longer just the written word being shared: self-generated video content is having a field day and we are all keen to share our creations so we upload at least 24 hours of video onto YouTube every minute. The great name of the game is to profit from this – alongside time, the amount of money spent online is set to increase.

Mobile devices are becoming a key means to access the internet, driven by the availability and increasing affordability of smart phones as well as high-speed data modems and USB dongles that provide internet access for laptops. This trend is expected to continue, with growth for smart phones projected to increase from 54 million today to 289 million in 2013, which will increase consumers’ choice as to how they access the internet. Perhaps more significantly, though, it is increasingly likely that the first internet experience for the majority of people who live in an emerging economy will be through a mobile rather than a PC. By 2020, the vast majority of us will have internet access to much of the world’s data, and most of this will be via mobile.

Transforming development

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, has described the mobile phone as ‘the single most transformative tool for development’ and it certainly seems to be the case. Mobiles do not have the same barriers to access as PCs – they are inexpensive and relatively simple to use, so standard voice and text messaging has been able to transform the way people in the developing world communicate, look for work, stay in touch with friends and family, send and receive information and even save money. The impact of this on economic growth is significantly larger than that seen in more developed economies, which already had a well-established communications infrastructure. Essentially, mobiles are taking on the same crucial role played by fixed telephony in richer economies during the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Africa, despite its poverty, has become a centre for both growth and innovation in mobile use – for example, M-PESA, the world’s leading mobile money transfer payment service, was launched in Kenya. So, ‘connectivity’ in emerging economies really means ‘mobile connectivity’.

One of the main reasons for this is that the pre-pay charging model has ensured that even the poorest can now choose to have access to a mobile. The pre-pay model began by facilitating the spread of mobile phones among Western teenagers in the late 1990s but, more importantly, it has also dramatically expanded the market for mobile phones in poor countries. The Grameen model of micro-entrepreneurship built on this to enable ‘telephone ladies’ to be set up with mobiles in rural areas, essentially establishing themselves as living public telephone facilities for fellow villagers. Alongside all of this, the fact that the price of handsets has been steadily falling – from around $250 in 1997 to less than $10 today – has cemented the mobile phone as the main vehicle for connectivity.

Mobile impact

You don’t have to look far to see the impact of this simple, convenient technology. India, for example, has one of the fastest growing telecommunication services in the world; on average 20.3 million new mobile connections are made every month. The current estimate is that there are 584.3 million Indian mobile phone users, compared with 37 million fixed-line subscribers, and by the time this book goes to press you can probably add another 50 million. Globally, some predictions suggest that we will reach 6.5 billion mobile phone subscribers by the end of 2014 – equivalent to a 91% penetration rate. The reason for this is that mobiles are helping to drive growth in the economy. In 2009, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) found clear evidence to suggest that Indian states with a 10% higher mobile phone penetration enjoy an annual average growth rate 1.2% greater than states with a lower teledensity.

The numbers are impressive but perhaps the best illustrations to give are examples of real scenarios. Take, for instance, a migrant worker recently arrived from the countryside: if potential employers can’t contact him because he has nowhere permanent to live, then his chances of getting work are reduced. Also, when the alternative to a phone call is a time-consuming journey along poor and possibly dangerous roads, the value of connectivity is greater. So, if you live in a remote rural community and you need to go to the nearest town to buy or sell some goods, a simple phone call, or text message, can tell you immediately if the journey will be worth while, thus saving you time and money on unnecessary trips.

Building business

Connectivity can also help build businesses – small or large. Ranjeet Gupta, an Indian henna artist, is a good case in point. His speciality is decorating the hands and feet of brides in preparation for their wedding day. He came to Delhi from the countryside in 2001 and began plying his trade on a pavement, preparing brides from the poorest families. In 2002 he bought a mobile phone and was then able to prepare brides from slightly richer families, who he could visit in their own homes. He was also then able to order dry henna over the phone rather than having to go to a shop to buy it. As time and privacy became less of a problem, customers asked for more intricate designs and his decorative repertoire grew. He next went on to buy a camera phone and used that as a portfolio to show his designs to customers. Building on his success, Ranjeet was able to buy another camera phone which he gave to his son who lives with the main family in a village outside Delhi. His son has now started training to become a henna artist using the different designs sent to him by his father. Mobile connectivity has allowed Ranjeet to make a livelihood in a situation where the modestly educated and relatively poor often struggle.

Talking to machines

As already noted, connectivity does not have to be just between people. In the future, the number of machines that will be connected remotely is expected to increase considerably. Machine-to-machine (M2M) technology is set to be used in the battle against one of the most pressing challenges facing society – namely, climate change. Expectations of the benefits of this are high. A recent joint report by Accenture and Vodafone suggested M2M connectivity could cut Europe’s annual energy bill by at least €43 billion and effect a reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 113 million tonnes CO2e by 2020. This represents 18% of the UK’s annual CO2e output in 2008 and approximately 2.4% of expected EU emissions in 2020. Clearly, however, these predictions come with many provisos – most importantly, to be successful they can only be realised if industry and governments are prepared to collaborate.

Connectivity, be that mobile or fixed-line and internet connectivity, can only take us so far. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the internet, envisaged a world of global collaboration, where people could share and build ideas without the confines of time and place. Twenty-five years on this is almost a reality. The internet was born on a PC but its natural home is on the more personalised ‘always available, always connected’ mobile device. It is here that the internet comes alive, offering not only access to information but also interaction with information. Mobiles have given people, from all corners of the world, who would not otherwise have access, the chance to join in. Indeed, the concept of sending and receiving information via mobile has acted as a stepping-stone for many people as they make the transition from two-way conversations to receiving text-based information via their handsets. The next iteration is, of course, social networking which burst onto the scene about five years ago and which will again fundamentally change the way that people relate to one another, as well as with businesses and governments.

Sharing ideas

Social networking has given us all the ability to host global interactive debates on anything with anyone with the simple click of a mouse or touch of a screen. It has made the sharing of ideas easy. It also means that many of us now live in a 24/7/365 world where it is possible to talk, email or even video call wherever we are, whenever we want with whomever we want. Not so long ago, this would have been possible for only a few highly technical, well-funded institutions. We can create a global discussion – such as that of the Future Agenda – for anyone to join in. Although this is exciting and has huge benefits in breaking down barriers, Web2.0 is also a noisy world and despite the ability to make information public, the flurry of opinion, websites, blogs and personal pages does not necessarily mean that amongst the clamour it is any easier to sort fact from fiction. Also, how do you work out who you should trust in a world where millions of people use multiple identities?

The value of information

Increasingly, information no longer has value but understanding information and analysing what it means still does. Those people who are able to take this understanding and connect with others across borders (be they national, professional or social) will be able to build on their knowledge and create their own networks. This will present interesting challenges as businesses come to terms with a world in which collaboration, open innovation and crowd sourcing may make the traditional corporate structure seem very outdated. Over the next ten years, expect that fast, efficient connectivity will facilitate the growing trend towards virtual companies as knowledge workers increasingly become free agents. What is clear is the barriers between work and play are continuing to crumble and busy executives will now have to manage the blurring of what used to be quite distinctive areas. It will no longer be a question of work–life balance but more a question of work–life integration.

All of this sounds relentlessly upbeat but there is a darker side to this universal data access. Over the course of the workshops we have been running, three clear themes have emerged and have evoked considerable debate. Roughly speaking they can be characterised as content, contact and commercialism.

Who to trust?

The increasing wealth of information available means that more and more individuals will be left to judge what to believe and what to trust. Consider those who want to reach out to others in community chat rooms and in so doing get help and support at times of need: websites such as patientslikeme.com, which provides a way for people with life-changing diseases to share experiences and learn from others with similar conditions, are great examples of how social networking can work to the benefit of others. But sites like this are juxtaposed with sites that are designed to misinform or undermine. It will be left to the user to decide what is accurate and to respond accordingly and decisions around this will become more difficult as the amount of information available increases. In particular, parents will have to deal with the challenges of ensuring their children do not have access to inappropriate information, be that of a sexual, violent or otherwise offensive nature. This will be increasingly difficult because many adults will continue to struggle with technology that seems almost second nature to their children. There have been many discussions around the grooming of children in chat rooms but, as one workshop participant pointed out, ‘one of the biggest challenges may be from the local community’. In the past, school bullying generally stopped at the front door of a child’s home but increasingly sophisticated mobile devices mean that not only can a child receive abusive messages, but also their location, who they are with and what they are doing will be shared with others at the mere press of a button. All of this could happen without their parents’ knowledge or control. Not only that, but there is also the need to address the dramatic increase in child pornography driven by the ability of the internet to connect those with common but morally unacceptable tastes.

The value of IP

The abuse of content extends across all sectors and is currently most visible as a threat to the creative industries as data is shared indiscriminately and without cost. As Chris Meyer said in his initial perspective, ‘Enterprise 2.0 has reduced the marginal cost of IP to essentially zero.’ Journalism, the movie business and the music industry have been wrestling with ways in which to retain their value, derived as it is from the sharing of information. Journalism is particularly vulnerable as YouTube, Twitter and any wealth of blogs makes reporters of us all and undermines the traditional business model. Already, many publications feel obliged to provide online content free of charge. Despite the attempts of News International to halt it, this trend seems set to continue. In the short term, the media may well continue to make a profit both through sales and advertising spend as, at the time of writing, it is still more convenient to read a traditional paper– on the train for example – rather than look at the news through a computer screen. But as new devices, such as the iPad and the Kindle continue to improve their functionality and become more widely available, this may well change and business models will have to change too.

Changing the high street

The commercial challenge is not faced just by journalists. Although internet shopping may well be more convenient for some over the next ten years, it will also have a huge impact on our high streets as the demand for a physical space in which to buy books, clothes and food declines. Furthermore, the number of people necessary to manage a warehouse is significantly less than the number required to staff a shop so expect significant changes in working patterns in the retail industry. This will not only reduce job prospects for the young but also the poorly qualified. It may also have an impact on local communities, leaving the sick and the old, who frequently use shopping routines as a way of keeping in touch with society, with fewer options for interaction with others.

Keeping up

Finally, problems are looming with regard to how to ensure the next generation of networks manage to support the increased demand from the users. Millions of people are now accessing data, buying goods, browsing websites, sending emails, downloading and swapping music, catching up on television shows, watching movies, or playing video games on line. This is putting pressure on the network capacity. Over the next ten years, key decisions will have to be made around how networks are managed so that as many people as possible are able to benefit from the internet. The current view is that messages must queue up to be delivered and the more demand that is placed on the network, the longer and slower the queue gets for everyone. This means that a large video file will reduce the speed at which another short email arrives at its destination. Effectively all applications are treated alike and network operators do not interfere with the data they send or receive – with the important exceptions of prioritising calls to the emergency services and blocking illegal content such as child pornography. However, this means that those people who do not wish to use high bandwidth services are forced to queue alongside those who do. It is becoming increasingly important to identify a way in which networks can be monetised and those who need to use more capacity can do so. The most contentious decision will be over who should have priority when demand is high and the system is put under pressure. Finally, during the next ten years, increasing connectivity means that, whether we like it or not, we will all have a virtual presence. As a result, individuals will have to decide the amount and value of the data we produce and who it is we should share it with. We will have to balance the benefits of sharing our personal information – around our health, for example – with concern for our privacy. There is a gradual public realisation that faster search results, and the convenience of tailored information comes at a price and that price is sharing personal information with organisations. Already today many people are taking information off their Facebook and MySpace profiles and restricting what data is open to the public. Going forward, we can only expect this to increase as the private data/public data balance changes. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as the younger generation, which has matured alongside the internet, is likely to find the negotiation between public and private online lives much easier.

In short

So, expect the majority of the world’s population to be connecting to the internet via a mobile device by 2020, with the major share of new users coming from China and India. Universal data access will be here: imagine a world where there may be as many as 50 billion devices all connected to each other, offering new types of services and opportunity for people, business and government. Of course, as well as opportunity there will be challenges – interception, the right to privacy, the difficulties in distinguishing fact from fiction – but in a world that will be constrained in almost every other area – food, health, resources and so on – perhaps it is here that we have most reason to be optimistic.

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