As we enter 2023, finding our bearings after a few years which were as tumultuous for technology and connectivity as they were for society more broadly, and deeply aware that there is much challenge and opportunity still to come in our near future, people reading this will have a wide range of priorities and expectations in mind.
Some will be feeling the pressure of maintaining and strengthening security postures in a digital-first environment. Others will be thinking about the future of cloud architecture as enterprises find their right place in a complex environment of hybrid and edge options. And, amid economic headwinds, there will likely be some re-evaluation of what good return on investment looks like for data centres and connectivity.
Few of us, on the other hand, are likely to be thinking much about the availability of internet connectivity per se. However, while recent global events have accelerated much of the business world into fully digitalised ways of working, smaller inroads have been made on enfranchising the world’s population with internet connectivity. According to the latest edition of the International Telecommunication Union’s annual Facts and Figures publication, 2.7 billion people remain offline, compared to 2.9 billion in 2021.
That’s a full third of the planet’s population who cannot directly benefit from vital services like online banking, digital government services, democratised access to information, and real-time health updates. It’s a sobering reminder of the fact that, with so many of us having grown used to seeing the internet as a utility alongside water and power, we have a serious responsibility to connect the unconnected.
The good news is that we are seeing huge pots of funding being allocated by governments and agencies to help drive this work forward: it is well understood that connectivity pays economic dividends for everyone in society, and that economic incentive is being pursued in important and, often, life-changing ways.
Equity beyond access
For the business community tasked with delivering change, though, this will not be a simple case of repeating well-understood procedures for establishing the necessary infrastructure in different territories until the job is done. For one thing, existing network infrastructure is already under pressure as growth in demand vies with growth in capacity. Richer ways of using the networks we have – from new kinds of recreational and entertainment usage to feeding real-time data into corporate AI/ML solutions – mean that networks need to evolve and expand even as they are spread more widely and equitably.
At the same time, there are emerging pressures on networking which will demand proactive responses if we are to ensure that internet access is not only universally available, but equitably shared in a sustainable way. Given the necessary rapid growth of networking infrastructure, it makes sense that it represents an ever-greater share of global greenhouse gas emissions, but estimates that ICT may constitute 3% to 4% of global emissions will still surprise many.
As providers of a core utility, our industry is in the position of relying on technology – data centres and relay stations, masts and cells – which requires always-on power. While telecoms leaders are setting clear targets around reducing power consumption and implementing other green initiatives into business activities, it’s far from clear that the industry is on course for the 45% reduction in footprint by 2030 which the Paris Agreement calls for. Alongside consumer pressure to take stronger action, a growing raft of governmental legislation around the world seems likely to keep environmental impact at the top of the agenda for network infrastructure.
Ultimately, of course, we need to remain mindful that the importance of this work comes not from the targets we set, but from the consequences that irreversible climate change impacts will have on communities – and those most likely to be vulnerable are often those which are yet to fully benefit from internet connectivity. This year I expect to see more collaborative work on the issue, with businesses demanding greater insight and transparency from partners and suppliers as we seek a fuller understanding of our impact and how to alleviate it.
Global network benefits
The industry, of course, is no stranger to collaborative operations: rare is the networking initiative which does not span many stakeholders in order to successfully iterate on the many moving parts of connectivity. Those relationships and working processes have been matured further by the work, over the last half-decade, to realise the development of 5G.
Over the next year, that work too will continue as we move from implementing a core version of the technology to introducing a greater variety of end-user improvements. The industry will start to offer more competitive fixed wireless access services, diversifying the available paths to a truly modern online experience, as well as 5G standalone services to deliver the full benefits of 5G. Better support for applications with demanding latency and reliability needs, as well as extended IoT capabilities, will bring mobile networking into the heart of many enterprise operations.
As always, connectivity enjoys a network effect in which each implementation of a technology delivers better returns the more widespread that technology is. Which is to say, fully achieving benefits for individuals, communities, and businesses will rely on making sure that 5G technology is reaching into traditionally underserved geographies as well as wealthier urban centres of commerce.
To take just one example, delivering low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity closer to communities around the world will enable a continued migration from large core, small edge data architecture to a smaller core, larger edge arrangement which better distributes resources and alleviates capacity bottlenecks in traditionally high-demand areas.
There is a big vision for the global power of connectivity available, if we choose to see it. There is a huge amount of work left to be done, and we won’t achieve it all in 2023. This year, though, I believe that governments, operators, and vendors can make real inroads on rolling out more equitable, more capable networking that benefits all of us.