Never before have technology and human communications merged into such powerful combination and produced such impactful outcomes as they do today. We have come very far from the days of Alexander Graham Bell when a single copper wire made it possible for humans miles apart to speak to each other, yet we know that the most momentous achievements that have completely transformed the way people connect to each other have taken place only in the last 25 years. As we continue to reach more milestones in the evolution of our communication technologies and as we continue to witness the phenomenal amount of information being sent and received across the many communication channels that have come into being, we can't help but wonder how these revolutionary changes and all the changes yet to come are impacting our lives and the lives of everyone else on this planet.
What today’s communication technologies have done for the human race is perhaps best explained by the undoing of the ‘single continent’ that was Pangaea, some 200 million years ago. As continents drifted away to find their new coordinates on the Planet, living beings that had once nestled together as common species started evolving into newer forms, taking on newer features, attributes and newer patterns of survival. Humans too started evolving into new races, changing and adapting to the new environmental conditions they were being drifted to and millions of years down this evolution path, we find ourselves transformed into hundreds of new communities, separated not only by the vast oceans and mountain ranges, but also by vast differences in ideologies, culture, practices and belief systems.
The Haves and Have-Nots: When Diversity Takes a Different Meaning
While diversity in itself is a beautiful phenomenon that maintains the balance on this Planet and is a natural part of the design of the universe, within the context of the world we live in today, it has also brought about vast differences in the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of the human race. We find entire regions where societies are provided for with all the amenities and resources they need, who are empowered with knowledge and knowhow, who are given access to unlimited economic opportunities, who enjoy their rights and freedom, and most importantly have safe, secure and sustainable environments to live, work and raise their future generation. At the same time, in other regions, we have communities who, despite having access to basic facilities and daily sustenance, struggle at the lower rungs of economic inequality, often subjugated by disempowering practices and disbeliefs and lack of knowledge and limited access to necessary resources and whose rights and freedom are suppressed and limited by their own societal arrangements and who are perpetually trapped in environments that are susceptible to political and economic instabilities.
This is where the ‘Connecting People’ idea comes into play. With the explosion of the internet and now, the mobile internet, there is a level of human connectivity that is taking place that is unprecedented in history. Though for many centuries, people from different continents have connected for trade and political reasons, communication and sharing of information have always been confined to the privileged few (taking into consideration the long sea voyages and risky land excursions). What we see taking place today over all the bandwidth that is being delivered across 7 continents is an unfathomable grassroots level connectivity and interaction that are sweeping across almost every connected nation where entire communities are going online using simple handheld devices that can be purchased at the shop around the corner and start ‘crossing’ those economic, political, social and cultural borders that have long defined them and kept them enclosed from the rest of the world. What is happening today before our eyes is those tectonic plates that have drifted away are coming back together at a virtual level as internet and mobile connectivity become more and more prevalent in every corner of the world. People are ‘walking’ into countries they have never known before, learning about science and technology they never knew existed, forging ties with strangers in faraway lands, entering new markets, creating new economic opportunities and empowering themselves. Effectively, we are all walking on a virtual Pangaea (thanks to Google Earth, we can ACTUALLY do that on our mobile phones) and we are once again, slowly yet steadily, merging into a single species.
Who Does Not Want to be Part of the 7 Billion People Marketplace Generating USD$75 Trillion Annually?
The effect of this is already being felt in a lot of places that have started enjoying access to internet in general, and mobile data in particular, with shifts in the economy and social structures becoming more apparent. Connected communities are starting to enjoy access to new pools of resources, new markets and increased trading opportunities. The availability of new resources (raw materials, skills and funding) for example has spurred the growth of a large number of new economic verticals in retailing, healthcare, financial services and education, to name a few. Businesses are able to access pools of skilled labour, connect directly to manufacturers of high quality end products, and import raw materials directly from community farms. In fact, borderless resourcing has risen so much in recent years that there is an avalanche of online sites including online global crowdfunding sites (the likes of Crowdrise, Indiegogo, Tilt and Kickstarter), online skill-sourcing sites (the likes of oDesk and Freelancer) and global online recruitment and career sites (the likes of LinkedIn and Zing) that allow businesses of all sizes to connect directly with investors and best talents from anywhere in this world.
On the other side of the production story, we have communities seeking out means of finding new markets for their skills, produce and services. Leveraging the internet and mobile connectivity, qualified and highly trained workers are able to market and sell their skills, even land job offers via active online participation. At the same time, connected communities are now able to offer their produce and services to a bigger marketplace. Hospitality and tourism, speciality produce, art and crafts, digital content and specialized IT services for example have seen small businesses and entrepreneurs in less developed countries receiving new traction from global buyers and consumers. Increased internet literacy, private access to internet enabled by widespread use of affordable handsets and facilitation provided via local and global C2C e-commerce exchanges such as Amazon and Alibaba and payment gateways such as PayPal have made it possible for small and medium businesses in many less exposed regions to penetrate global markets.
Access to high quality services and facilities is another major reason why grassroots-level connectivity is high on the list for a lot of initiatives in the telecommunications space. Connected communities are able to access information and services in sectors such as education and healthcare, thanks for enabling technologies such as video conferencing, video calls and cloud-based remote monitoring/machine-to-machine (M2M) communication which provide connectivity and enable real-time rich communications. In fact, ‘face-to-face’ video communication has today become accessible to everyone – whether it is students reaching out to their tutors abroad or patients seeking consultation from doctors in reputable hospitals in other countries – as video calling becomes a common feature on 3G, 4G ,VoLte, VoWiFi services and on Over-the-Top(OTT) applications and is also easily accessed on feature phones and smartphones. As more services establish their online presence, we see participation in virtual classrooms, online universities and online health consultations increasing just as how online sites offering quick ‘answers’ (examples include Udemy, KhanAcademy, TreeHouse, Time4Learning, Educents, HowStuffWorks.com, Google Help Out) and 'consultations' (examples being WebMD, NIH and Mayoclinic) have become the ‘go to’ channels for users around the world looking for advice on a wide range of medical, legal, personal and professional matters. In some other regions, for example Africa, mobile phones and data connectivity have enabled access to ‘banking’ services for the first time for millions of unbanked African communities with consumers now making payments and purchases via mobile money services offered by communication service providers (CSPs).
Economic liberalization brought about by connectivity coupled with access to better education and advanced healthcare will in turn spur increased awareness on community well-being – creating the demand for improved living and working conditions, better social systems and fair and equitable economic policies with equal opportunities for everyone. Connectivity effectively creates and maintains social mobility, enabling everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background, to participate and benefit from local and global economic growth which in turn drives continuous improvements in the quality of life for everyone on the Planet.
We Have Built the Towers and Turned On Our Servers, But What's Next?
In the past two decades, CSPs, telecom and IT solution providers, hardware-makers and various players within the telecommunications ecosystem have worked hard to lay the foundation for a ‘Connected’ world by building the necessary infrastructure, making the connections and bringing internet and mobile services across regions and countries. While commercial goals have been the primary motivation across these projects, businesses have begun embarking on the ‘second wave’ – instituting and implementing more concerted and targeted programs to (a) ensure that connectivity reaches every community even in regions and places where commercial viability remains low so that the digital divide we have today narrows over time; and (b) ensure that connectivity continues to inspire and empower all communities both economically and socially.
This is where we find the various 'connectivity' initiatives spearheaded by the likes of the GSMA, Telefonica, Orange, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Verizon, Telenor, Qualcomm, Samsung and other major players in the industry becoming increasingly significant and impactful. These initiatives are focused on identifying community needs that can be met using technology, connectivity and funding and that can leverage the regional presence and extended networks established by these leading players to reach and transform these communities for the better.
This is also where technologies and solutions take centerstage. Connectivity alone will not deliver much if there are no cost-effective solutions, for example solutions that deliver real-time services, that consume a minimum bandwidth, work on a lean infrastructure, leverage the cloud and that can be integrated with other services seamlessly. In fact, the use of open platforms for database systems (for example MySQL and ‘in-memory’ database system MongoDB), operating systems( example, the Linux family of OS) , content management (including Wordpress, Ghost and Joomla) and more recently software-defined networking(SDN) and network functions virtualization(NFV) (that's OpenStack and Open Daylight) have spurred the development of affordable, highly customizable, light-weight, flexible solutions, applications and web-content for today’s telecommunication networks making it possible for service providers to quickly build and launch new services at a fraction of the cost it would have otherwise been.
In the same vein, affordable devices are critical in enabling individual level participation on the internet. With low cost device makers beginning to populate the marketplace, consumers are able to acquire basic smartphones for as little as USD33. But what is more important for the consumers are the recurring charges they pay for their connectivity. Data charges should not be creating a new gap in access to information and services. Much work has been done today by the likes of Opera Software and Facebook via content compression technologies allowing massive compression of web content, cutting down megabytes of data on internet browsing, resulting in much lower charges and superior surfing experience. In addition, innovative monetization models are surfacing across many segments, namely retail and advertising leading to introduction of new sponsored data and sponsored voice platforms, app-based sponsored data programs and sponsored content arrangements. These innovative solutions backed by technologies such as policy and charging control, various business support systems (BSS), app/content gateways and sponsored data exchanges allow merchants, advertisers and service providers to do their part in bringing free data access for selected communities and first time users.
Alternative technologies will also be playing a major role in accelerating the adoption of internet culture in many regions where it is commercially non-viable for operators to build and operate a network. This is where Google’s Wi-Fi balloons, community Wi-Fi enabled by long range Wi-Fi access points and the use of low-cost satellite broadband, for example, will accelerate the on-boarding of remote communities onto the internet. Research into innovative ways of releasing more bandwidth for mobile internet services is also underway and we are seeing the ‘White Space’ deployment already pioneered by some players. At the same time, authorities are looking into ways to free up more bandwidth by allowing the refarming of existing spectrums for mobile data usage.
And along with the research and development initiatives, partnerships are being forged between all the businesses involved in the ecosystem and also between governments, local authorities and non-governmental organizations. Partnerships are critical in expediting processes such as research, standardization, regulatory approvals and in driving local acceptance and engagement - such that connectivity initiatives can be rolled out rapidly and the benefits can be delivered in a timely manner to the recipient communities.
In the end, It's All About People
Here at PCC Mobile Broadband, our focus and work has always been centered around technologies, solutions and service innovations in the pursuit of efficient and resilient networks as well as seamless and high-quality delivery of data and rich communication services and improved user experience. With the launch of our new ‘Connecting People’ segment, for which this article is written for, we endeavour to put all these within a wider context and a greater vision. We envisage the various technological, economic and social initiatives by governments, businesses and individuals around the globe playing a very critical role not only in delivering connectivity and content and driving internet participation, but in influencing the outcomes they deliver, ensuring that as more communities become connected and as we continue to scale greater heights in terms of our communications technologies and service improvements, people continue to empower themselves and improve their lives and livelihoods.
Visit our 'Connecting People' Segment