Next decade holds new twists for comms technology

ZDNet takes on the daunting task of predicting what the coming decade holds for communications technology
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Predicting what will happen in the next decade of communications technology is complicated, primarily because the subject matter has become so integral to other technologies.

The idea of pervasive IP — or ubiquitous computing, the internet of things or hyperconnectivity — will transform the way we live and work. Just as the smartphone has given us portable, powerful connectivity, pervasive IP will mean internet connectivity embedded into everyday objects — some portable, some fixed.

The big driver for pervasive IP will be energy efficiency. As smart meters become common, it makes sense to regulate the consumption of individual appliances by monitoring and controlling them remotely.

Wireless connectivity
Although some of the connectivity can be achieved using powerline communications, much of it will be wireless — 3G-like wide-range technologies will hook up devices to the cloud, while high-frequency, short-range technologies will allow the devices to talk to each other.

Much of this inter-device communication will take place through wireless mesh networks. Self-healing, self-organising and resilient, such networks are being used for quick deployments by military and aid organisations, as well as in some industrial situations. In the future, they will be used across cities, for business and at home.

The shift towards pervasive IP will be accompanied by widespread adoption of IPv6. This has to be — IPv4 addresses are now near depletion. Pervasive wireless computing will also require international harmonisation of radio spectrum. Europe is already on the case, but clear international standards will be needed.

Unprecedented risks
Creating a world where everything is connected to the same network will bring with it unprecedented risks in terms of monitoring a person's every action. The era of pervasive IP will have to include strict privacy laws and security controls if we are to avoid a nightmarish, Big Brother scenario.

The move into the cloud — again, an idea made attractive by the energy consumption benefits of centralising processing power and storage for remote access — will require further improvements in communications technology, both fixed and wireless. Speeds will need to improve, but symmetrical connectivity will also become increasingly important as interaction takes over from consumption.

Fibre-based fixed connections will take download speeds beyond 1Gbps, and will also make uploading a far more common experience. LTE and other post-3G technologies will lag behind on speed, but are likely to become more prevalent as netbooks and tablet PCs are adopted as primary computing devices.

These wireless technologies will also have to become more reliable — cloud computing is not much use without persistent connectivity, even with the clever offline capabilities brought by Google Gears and HTML 5.

Political threat
This connectivity is threatened not only by the laws of physics — line-of-sight issues, contention and so on — but also by politics.

If copyright enforcement measures such as those proposed in the UK's Digital Economy Bill and the global Acta treaty are passed without serious modification, people will be thrown off the web. As getting back online becomes easier, and as circumvention of technical restriction evolves, there is a strong risk that these new laws will become tighter, more invasive and more stifling to innovation.

Perhaps the biggest shift in communications technology over the next decade will not lie in the technology itself, but rather in the way it is viewed — as a fundamental right, rather than as a convenience.

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