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IT strategy: Web of intrigue – the internet’s endless possibilities

As we crack open the bubbly to celebrate Financial
Director’s
25th birthday, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the
seismic changes that have shaken the world of IT and computing in this
magazine’s life thus far.

The rate of evolution has been nothing short of breathtaking. It is easy to
forget how much we have achieved and how quickly. If you are reading this
article online at www.financialdirector.co.uk, remember that the internet as we
know it today was only born in 1985 when the US National Science Foundation
(NSF) took over administration of a military network called Arpanet. This
infrastructure was originally conceived in the Cold War climate of the late
1960s as a communications system that could survive a war. The communications
protocol used to link all internet-connected computers today started life as a
US military standard.

NSF went on to expand the network, linking research and education
institutions. The number of computers connecting to its original system was a
paltry 2,000. There can be no accurate estimate for the number of devices
connected to the internet today, but at the time of writing, web monitoring
outfit Internet World Stats claimed there are now 1,668,870,408 web users
globally ­ an increase of 360% over the last nine years.

It seems staggering that the domain Google.com was only registered in 1997,
though the underlying search technology developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin
at Stanford ­ then labouring under the less than snazzy moniker BackRub ­ had
already been developed. It was round about this time that consumer broadband got
started in the UK, when BT and the cable firms that were Virgin Media’s
predecessors launched their first trial services. A handful of surfers were able
to log on with a blistering 256 kilobits per second: fast enough to download one
music track in 10 minutes. And these were the lucky few: the rest of the online
population was creeping along the information superhighway with dial-up
connections offering speeds akin to continental drift.

Compare this to today’s broadband picture in the UK. Internet usage has
become widespread, with more than 15 million households now connected with
broadband internet. According to analyst group Point Topic, the ‘average Brit’
now spends more than 16 hours a week online and downloads can be 200 times
faster than they were in the last millennium. Britain added a total of 445,000
new broadband lines in the first half of 2009 to reach more than 17.8 million in
total. Looking further ahead, there will be more than 23 million broadband lines
in the UK by the end of 2013. And no wonder, as the benefits of broadband are
many and compelling: quicker access to information, faster data downloads,
improved communication through email, real-time chat, video conferencing and
other tools to make life ­ and business ­ easier. (And even cheaper.)

Recently published research from the Pew Research Center shows that from
country to country and region to region, broadband is no longer seen as a
luxury, but rather, an essential part of our daily lives. It is becoming clear
that people will scrimp and save on almost anything in order to retain their
broadband connections.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that everything in the internet garden
is rosy and UK businesses can expect to benefit from this broadband nirvana.
After all, there is nothing virtual about the value of online business: the UK
e-commerce market will be worth £68.4bn in 2009, according to internet research
outfit, e-Marketer.

Unfortunately, these huge numbers, when set against the targets in the
government’s new Implementation Plan for Digital Britain, actually show there is
still a mountain to climb. The UK has much to do before it can catch up with the
world’s broadband leaders such as South Korea, where 99% of households enjoy
super-fast broadband. Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report, unveiled this June,
insists that the UK will not continue to lag behind other developed nations and
promises universal broadband in time for the Olympics in 2012.

This ‘universal service commitment’ is designed to ensure everyone has quick
enough internet access to watch videos online. However, it is estimated there
are still more than nine million UK homes not currently connected to the
internet and this number is falling only very slowly ­ at current rates of
adoption there will still be around 6.5 million homes without internet access in
2014.

Concerted action is needed from government and the internet industry to
ensure universal really does mean universal when it comes to broadband
availability and that the full potential of the internet is realised for both
business and consumers. We can only speculate what technology will deliver in
the next 25 years, but there can be no doubt that fast, reliable internet access
is a fundamental requirement in today’s world.

And it will become even more so in tomorrow’s. Let us not forget that less
than 8% of the world’s population currently has a broadband line ­ so the
potential of online commerce is nothing short of mind-boggling.

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