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The next 50 billion: will smart things break the Internet?

October 27, 2016

David Eden   

Future technologist and product innovation

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.

For many people the Internet is simply a utility like electricity, a utility that we take for granted. With Internet Day taking place this Saturday, let’s take a moment to think about what it takes to let us live our digital lives. Crucially, with the continued emergence of new devices and applications which rely on Internet connectivity, will the Internet will be able to cope under the extra pressure?

Managing tens of billions of connections

From real-time analytics of supply chains to portable health monitoring, all 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. 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.

Another connected technology in the headlines at the moment is driverless cars. Yet, for self-driving cars to become mainstream, there needs to be a deeper understanding of the demands that the data traffic generated by tens of thousands of self-driving cars will put on network infrastructures. The autonomous vehicles revolution will depend on the availability of ubiquitous, intelligent and highly robust networks underpinning the 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, every second nearly 1 million minutes of video content will cross the Internet. With more and more content being developed by the sports and entertainment industries for 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. While companies like Tata Communications that operate the infrastructure behind the Internet have the bandwidth to support VR, home broadband often does not, leading to a jittery viewing experience. We need to see investments in very low-latency, high-throughput last-mile networks to cope with the demands of VR. Only then can users get the VR experience they 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 seemingly ubiquitous nature of Wi-Fi and 4G – and soon 5G – means that for many, the future is wireless. But this could be stalled by the major investments from mobile operators required to roll out 5G networks, and subscribers’ reluctance to pay a premium for ultrafast 5G connectivity.

Whether Wi-Fi or 5G, wireless technologies will play a key role in delivering the next-generation Internet. In my view, even by 2020, when there will be more than 4 billion Internet users around the world, we will rely on wired connections, because fibre optic networks can carry far more data and bandwidth than wireless alternatives.

AI at the heart of the world’s Internet

Networks are getting hugely complex due to their global, multi-layered nature. AI will revolutionise network design, helping the Internet cope with future demands: machine learning will enable us to build faster, 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 global sports events, 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 work going on in the telecoms industry. By rethinking how networks are managed globally, we can ensure that the Internet won’t buckle under the pressure of ever-growing volumes of data criss-crossing the world every second.

How do you see networks changing to accommodate the next generation of connected devices? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.