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IT Strategy: Networks without infrastructure

ONLY a few decades ago, R&D was dominated by a ‘top-to-bottom’ transition of leading-edge technologies loosely described as ‘tanks to toys’, but it is now often ‘toys to tanks’. Consumer products such as GPS, mobile phones and UAVs are prime examples of technology leadership starting at the bottom and migrating up the chain to be leveraged by the military at low cost. In marketing, advertising and communications, we have seen ‘one-to-many’ turned around to become a dominant market of one – ‘many-to-one’ and ‘one-to-one’. But now comes a surprise development from a third world lacking in network infrastructure, connectivity and bandwidth, which is seeing accelerating demand for an influx of mobiles and tablets.

Although we use email and DropBox for sharing across the planet, a surprising proportion of what we do is relatively parochial and short-distance. This is also true of the second and third worlds where connectivity is often lacking, and sharing apps (device-to-device) using BlueTooth and WiFi have been developed. And when people want to share files and information during a meeting, they can use a secure local connection. This is low-energy, high-bandwidth, efficient and very secure compared to email and DropBox.

Longer-distance communication without infrastructure is also possible using device-based ‘store and forward’ courier apps on mobile devices. Here, stored files and messages are retained and physically carried until the mobile device gets into a region with connectivity. At this point, there is a ‘file drop’ and the stored messages can continue on their way. And we might consider these local networks and impromptu working modes as local or personal clouds. The security and bandwidth advantages are obvious, and it all comes for free. Most new mobile phones, tablets and laptops enjoy this ‘local facility’ and interworking across the same OS turns out to be easy. If there are any significant problems, they come with cross-OS working, which is a little more tricky, but far from impossible.

How all this developed is not entirely clear but one of the first to adopt this networking mode was the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Foundation – circa 2006. Largely discounted by the industry, it powered more change in the second and third worlds than most, and turned out to be a portent of a future world.

Does everything have to be online? I think not. Can some technology get by just sharing parochially? Cars, appliances and medical devices are good examples where information can be passed from device to device. For example, car-to-car on a motorway exchanging traffic information, garage forecourt-to-car providing local road updates, and seagoing containers updating logistics data. Eventually, something may have to go online, but not all the time.

Why would you want to avoid a ubiquitous infrastructure ? First, it is greener and involves a fraction (less than 10%) of the energy consumed by internet and 3/4G/WiFi alternative. Second, it is far more secure and difficult infiltrate. Third, 3/4/5G networks are unable to support the IoT/CoT future. In the UK, for instance, less than 5% of mobile internet traffic is transported on 3 or 4G. In some highly populated locations, this falls to less than 3%, and the dominant connectivity and data mode is free WiFi. How come? You can’t overcome the laws of physics. Without a tenfold (or more) increase in base station density and more optical fibre, this situation isn’t going to change. By proportion, the best guess at IoT /CoT traffic demand will see 50 to 250 things communicating. This would most likely increase global mobile network demand at least tenfold.

Where is all this going? Well, my guess is that networks without infrastructure will become the biggest carrier of machine and people communication over the next 20 years or so. ?

Peter Cohrance is a consultant and former chief technology officer at BT

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