Can the Internet cope with the world’s growing demands?

Did you know that there are around 1 billion WhatsApp users and more than 80 million Netflix users in the world, and that an average person spends around 4 hours on their mobile device every day?

Figures like this show how reliant people have become on communicating and consuming content over the Internet. Yet, it is probably fair to say that for many people the Internet is today simply a utility like electricity or gas – which we tend to take for granted.

With today (29th October) being Internet Day, it’s worth taking a moment to think about what it takes to keep us all connected and enable us to lead the digital lives that we’ve become so accustomed to. Crucially, with the continued emergence of new devices and applications which rely on Internet connectivity to function, will the Internet will be able to cope under the extra pressure of data-hungry technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), driverless cars and virtual reality (VR)?

Managing tens of billions of connections

Real-time analytics of supply chains and equipment, robotic machinery, portable health monitoring and retail inventory tracking, biometric and facial recognition locks… all of these different IoT applications require superfast connectivity and an innumerable number of connections.

In 2006, there were ‘just’ 2 billion connected objects. In 2020, there will be 50 billion – so around 7 smart objects for every human being on Earth. The amount of data traffic that these objects will generate could cause network-wide issues if things were to go wrong. So, as the IoT hype is starting to become a reality, policy makers need to start thinking about IoT traffic differently to traditional data traffic, due to the potentially disastrous consequences of a network failure on transport systems and future healthcare.

Another connected technology that has been in the headlines recently is driverless cars. It’s now feasible that seeing a self-driving car on the road will turn from an oddity to an everyday occurrence in the next 10 to 15 years. Yet, the many incidents experienced by Google, Tesla and other companies testing autonomous vehicles show that it is still early days for the driverless cars revolution. For self-driving cars to become truly autonomous vehicles, these companies must look at the connectivity which this smart technology will rely on. There needs to be a deeper understanding of the demands that the data traffic generated by hundreds, thousands and ultimately tens of thousands of self-driving cars will put on network infrastructures around the world.

Whether the autonomous vehicles revolution happens in our lifetime will depend on the availability of ubiquitous, intelligent and highly robust networks, which will underpin the safety and reliability of these vehicles.

The biggest bandwidth hog: video

The pressure felt by the world’s networks is not just about the volume of connections, but also about bandwidth. In 2020, video will represent more than 80 per cent of all Internet traffic, with every second nearly 1 million minutes of video content crossing the Internet.

With more and more content being developed by the sports, TV and film industries for Oculus Rift, Google Glass, Samsung Gear and other VR headsets, we’re set to see a 60-fold increase in VR traffic between now and 2020. One reason for this huge growth is that VR requires 5 times more bandwidth than HDTV to create an immersive user experience. Yet, while the companies that own and operate the infrastructure behind the Internet have the bandwidth to support VR, home broadband often does not, leading to a jittery viewing experience.

That is why we need to see investments in very low-latency, high-throughput last-mile networks to cope with the demands of VR. Only then can the industry ensure the brilliant, immersive VR user experience that consumers expect.

Is the future wireless?

IoT, VR and autonomous vehicles are causing networks to increase in complexity, with wireless technologies layered on top of wired infrastructures. The convenient, seemingly ubiquitous nature of Wi-Fi and 4G – and soon 5G – means that in the eyes of many, the future is wireless.

Despite news headlines suggesting otherwise, it remains to be seen if 5G will materialise as quickly initially thought because of the major investments needed by mobile operators to roll out 5G networks, and subscribers’ reluctance to pay a premium for ultrafast 5G connectivity. Nevertheless, whether Wi-Fi or 5G, wireless technologies will undoubtedly play a key role in delivering the next-generation Internet. Yet in my view, wired connections remain a necessary long-term investment. Even by 2020 – when there will be more than 4 billion Internet users around the world – wired fibre optic networks will be capable of carrying far more data and bandwidth than wireless alternatives.

AI at the heart of the world’s Internet

It’s been said that everything invented in the last 150 years will be reinvented using artificial intelligence (AI) – so the way we shop, the way we manufacture goods, the way we travel, and perhaps even the way we care for the elderly. In the same vein, AI will play a central role in helping the Internet cope with future bandwidth demands.

Networks are getting hugely complex due to their global and multi-layered nature, and designing a network is one of the most incredibly complex feats of engineering known to man. AI will revolutionise network design: machine learning will enable us to find ways of building faster and more efficient networks, and AI will maintain the network – analysing traffic, breaking up cyber-attacks and self-improving – as demands on the network evolve. By using AI, we will be able to predict Internet traffic flows around major global sports events such as the Football World Cup or the Olympics, and reroute traffic more effectively as needed.

To provide the critical connectivity foundations that IoT, VR and yet-to-be-invented Internet-enabled technology advancements rely on, there is a huge amount of work going on in the telecoms industry. By rethinking how networks are managed globally and bandwidth is optimised, we can ensure that the Internet won’t buckle under the pressure of ever-growing volumes of data criss-crossing the world’s networks every second. Still, with different connected technologies now permeating all aspects of our private and professional lives, and the incredible rate of technology innovation showing no signs of slowing down, it’s easy to take ubiquitous superfast connectivity for granted.

The next time you speak to a friend or a colleague over Skype, upload a photo onto Instagram, or share an update on LinkedIn, take a moment to think about how different the world would be if there was no Internet to power our always-connected lives.

David Eden, future technologist and product innovator, Tata Communications

Image source: Shutterstock/Toria