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Communications

 

Thanks, Dudley. My charge today is to talk about the effects of population growth on communications. That’s rather easy to do.

People want to stay connected, and population growth has driven the demand for more advanced and effective ways to do that. Without better communications, individuals would be lost like ants. So, that’s the effect of population growth on communications, and I see I’ve got about 20 minutes left!

What I’d like to do, then, is flip the topic now and talk about the effect of communications on our growing population. I fear that my task is akin to people in the late 1800s who tried to predict the impact of telephones in the twentieth century.

As was reported in the Wall Street Journal, some people back then believed the telephone would, and I quote, “Bring peace on earth … eliminate Southern accents … stamp out ‘heathenism’ abroad … and save the farm by making farmers less lonely.” While telephones had a huge and positive impact on people in the last century, we didn’t achieve world peace.

And a short discussion with any good Texas philosopher, for example our own Baker Duncan, will quickly prove that the Southern accent has survived intact! We did, however, achieve some remarkable advancements in technology, particularly the development of digital electronics.

Let me provide some brief technical background before we move on to the impact of all this. Digital simply means the use of binary code—those strings of ones and zeroes—to represent information. In digital communications, analog signals—such as the sound waves of your voice—are transformed into digital code at one end and decoded back into analog signals at the receiving end. This yields two major benefits.

First, digital signals can be reproduced with great accuracy. As analog signals travel, they progressively lose strength and pick up distortions, much as a radio station fades out into static as you drive away from the radio tower. But in digital transmissions, the network periodically reads all the ones and zeros and precisely duplicates the original signal. That’s why digital communications are so much “cleaner” than analog.

The second major benefit is that digital electronic circuitry is getting cheaper and more powerful all the time. A given digital electronic circuit will decrease in cost 25 to 30 percent each year. So, digital means higher-quality communications that are more powerful, yet cheaper.

Digital technology also allows ubiquitous networking. Whereas we all grew up with separate networks for separate mediums—voice networks, data networks, and broadcast networks—digital technology allows any type of signal to travel on any type of network to anybody or virtually anything, to anywhere.

There are three simple truths that illustrate how this is playing out in the world around us.

            First, bandwidth—or a network’s capacity to transmit simultaneous voice, video, and data—is exploding.

Truth number two: Broadband subscribers—people who can access high-speed, high-capacity bandwidth—are using this bandwidth in increasingly personal ways.

And truth number three: The Internet is changing everything. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Let’s look at these truths a little more closely.

Number one: There’s a boom in bandwidth at all levels—internationally, nationally and locally. On a global basis, at least 52 major undersea communications cables are in operation or under construction. That’s in addition to an expanding global network of satellite communications. Between 1999 and 2001, transoceanic network capacity will increase more than 500 percent.

At the national level, companies in many countries are building nationwide fiber-optic networks with tremendous capacity. For example, at the end of 1996, the total bandwidth of all wireline networks in the United States was 1 trillion bits per second—or one terabit. By 2003, that is expected to rise to 100 terabits.

Considering that the entire Library of Congress contains an estimated 10 terabits of information, within two years our national networks could transmit the entire Library of Congress 10 times every second. Locally, phone and cable companies are extending broadband directly to our homes and offices.

One of my former employers, SBC, is investing roughly $6 billion to make broadband DSL—or Digital Subscriber Line—available to the vast majority of its customers. DSL takes the existing telephone wiring and turns it into high-speed multimedia pipelines. In similar fashion, cable TV companies are upgrading their networks to handle high-speed data. The huge increase in network capacity is driven by customer demand. In the U.S., 70 percent of all adults now use a computer, and 80 percent of those people go on-line. Worldwide, an estimated 375 million people have Internet access today, growing to 500 million over the next two years. Most of these people still use low-speed dial-up connections, but as broadband becomes available, people are signing up. Broadband subscribers [cable and DSL] in the U.S. will jump from around one million at the end of 1999 to 20 million or more by 2004.

Truth number two is that people are personalizing their use of all this bandwidth. A primary reason people go on-line is to communicate with friends, family, and business associates. A recent study showed that the number of e-mail boxes worldwide increased 80 percent last year, to nearly 570 million. For years, my wife resisted getting a PC. But she recently made me buy her one so she could do e-mail. Turns out, our kids were talking with me by e-mail more than their mom. She had to get a PC at the kitchen desk just to stay in the loop!

Beyond e-mail, people also want to connect to information. The fastest-growing segments of on-line users are baby boomers and senior citizens who are drawn by Web sites about health, lifestyle, and business.

Truth number three is that the Internet is changing everything. Yet, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. People are using the Internet to do things differently, but our basic desires as human beings are the same as they’ve always been. By and large, people want health, wealth, and happiness. I think internetworking is a lasting phenomenon because it helps with these fundamental desires.

On the health horizon, we’ll see widespread use of smart medical devices, such as insulin pumps and pacemakers that are remotely monitored and activated by medical offices. We’ll also see things such as vehicles that automatically call an ambulance when an airbag is deployed.

Aside from obvious lifestyle benefits, health applications also mean more people will be able to work, thus adding to economic productivity. Which leads us to the topic of wealth. The world economy already has reaped tremendous benefits from information technology. The efficiencies of e-commerce are changing the economy’s cost structure by expanding customer bases and by driving down the cost of delivering goods and services.

Just three years ago, there were serious questions about whether people would do business on the Internet, mostly because of concerns about the security of financial information. But last week—on the day after Thanksgiving—1.3 million people used the Internet to shop at Amazon.com alone.

PriceWaterhouse estimates that in total, fourth quarter e-commerce sales will exceed $10 billion this year, up almost 100 percent from 1999. Of course, business alone does not lead to happiness—basic desire number three.

These are hectic times. In response, people are using the Internet to stay in touch with loved ones. And they’re beginning to use the Internet as a prime source for entertainment. This will increase as new generations of Internet appliances come to market. These new devices will include game consoles, Internet music players, smart wireless phones, and portable Internet gadgets in all shapes and varieties. These new devices will build upon the success that cellular phones achieved in the last decade. This year alone, the world will add 200 million new wireless phone subscribers.

It’s widely predicted that we’ll see more than 1 billion wireless subscribers by 2003—an incremental gain of roughly 600 million subscribers in just two years. As wireless penetrates worldwide, the coming new generations of services will offer global roaming, lower total costs, higher voice quality, multimedia, high-speed Internet access and longer battery life. If you think about it, wireless service already has come a long way.

The first cellular handsets were very expensive. They weighed as much as a brick and were as big as a cinder block when you added the batteries. Today, you get more functionality, better sound quality, and a quantum increase in talk time. And, it can fit in your pocket.

It’s amazing what this allows. Two years ago, I was standing on top of the Great Wall of China, and I direct-dialed my cell phone to speak with my wife in the United States. In the near future, the wireless handsets of the year 2000 will appear as antiquated as those clumsy early cell phones appear to us today. Using one of these new generations of phones, I could have seen my wife and showed her the Great Wall using video transmission.

A basic consequence of all of these truths is that power in our world is shifting. In business, consumers are establishing direct connections to content providers and manufacturers, threatening the middlemen as a result. As we speak, the music industry is wrestling with the Internet because it lets artists distribute their own music and lets consumers compile their own music catalogs.

In another example, Steven King released a short story over the Internet last March. Consumers downloaded 500,000 copies within the first few hours. Time magazine said King typically would have earned $10,000 from a magazine. By releasing the story over the Internet, King estimated he’d make $450,000.

In the bigger picture for business, the Internet is changing some time-honored principles of the Industrial Age. Customization is replacing standardization, flat organizational charts are replacing hierarchy, and decentralization is replacing centralization. Businesses who ignore this do so at their own peril. Just as Western Union fell into decline after it dismissed telephone technology, today’s businesses must adapt to the new reality of the Internet.

Many major corporations have embraced the Internet to facilitate their multinational operations. At the same time, many small businesses and individual sellers are using the Internet to operate multinationally.

One of my hobbies is collecting antique pocket watches. This year, I’ve used the Internet to buy watches from Bulgaria, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Alaska, and the continental U.S. For me and the sellers, this kind of multinational interaction would have been impossible just a few years ago. The implications for politicians are perhaps even more dramatic.

The global nature of the Internet frees constituents from the bonds of geography by opening up channels of information that previously were not available to the masses. In the Information Age, governments can no longer control information. The embattled Philippines’ president Joseph Estrada has learned this fact, much to his chagrin. An estimated three million Filipinos use their cell phones to send 30 million text messages every day, and it’s expanding daily.

This phenomenon has greatly reduced the president’s power to influence public opinion as people share their thoughts and feelings with one another on a massive scale. But there is a downside, as well. A recent Filipino bank run was induced by false rumors spread through text messaging.

Even as the Internet expands communications within classrooms and national borders, it also has exploded these boundaries themselves. The Internet is, in fact, creating new international communities of interest.

I believe that people will still maintain their national loyalties, but many futurists predict that people will steadily expand their horizons to become global “netizens.” A netizen is someone who grew up—or has grown into—using computers and networks as their principal means of exchanging information and communicating with people. Netizens are actively connected, and 92 percent of adults who use Web browsers are registered to vote. American Demographics reports that netizens tend to be deeply dissatisfied with their political choices, yet are optimistic about the future. Netizens are attached to ideas rather than political parties, and they are deeply committed to free speech.

As a result, politicians are under more pressure from more places than ever before. Whereas the Internet removes physical barriers, our political and legal systems are based on such boundaries. Governments now must resolve differences on a broad range of international issues, ranging from copyrights to privacy.

Taxation is just one area that shows how vexing the Internet will be for governments. Today, governments levy sales taxes based on location. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 30,000 separate taxing jurisdictions—all defined by geography. Almost all are ignored by most Internet commerce.

As you can see, there are problems that government and business must address. And there are fantastic possibilities for the people. But in the midst of this change and euphoria, let’s take a reality check. Even if we reach 500 million Internet users worldwide in the next two years as predicted, that’s still less than 10 percent of the world’s population. To fully capture the promise of the Internet and broadly extend the benefits of the Information Age, we need to extend advanced and more affordable communications to as many people as possible.

The challenge for governments is to balance societal goals and serve the public, while at the same time protecting commerce, free speech, and values. If governments can succeed at that challenging task, communications technology in the future might indeed help lead to unmatched peace and prosperity for the world’s growing population.

I do hope the Southern accent survives (!), but in the end, communications is simply a tool. What humanity does with this powerful tool is up to humans.