It is just about two decades since the commercialisation of the internet, which began with Netscape’s blockbuster IPO of August 1995, and the next wave appears to be imminent. One level up from Facebook’s drones, and a whole technology generation up from the undersea cables which still run the internet, Richard Branson’s OneWeb is through its $500 million round of funding and on its way to developing the first truly global carrier. Sunil Mittal has signed on Bharti Enterprises, speaking of the attractions of providing pervasive, affordable digital services by commanding the last mile. The network will initially consist of 648 satellites in low earth orbit, delivering high-speed data to terrestrial terminals which distribute the feed by Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G and 2G. Last-mile connectivity is the Holy Grail in countries like India with poor legacy networks and, apart from the obvious possibilities for telemedicine and distance education, a satellite-based system will be a game-changer on a broad front.
Massive connectivity is a precondition for the next wave, which has been prophesied for long and is now almost upon us. Last Friday, Amazon declared the fun and games open by releasing the code for its voice-controlled assistant and home automation device Alexa into the wild. It was designed to live inside Echo, Amazon’s voice-commanded speaker, now open to general retail after an invitation-only period.
By releasing the Alexa code to developers, hobbyists and inventors working in multiple areas, Amazon expects to overtake competing voice-commanded assistant technologies like Google Now, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, which is still barely out of the incubator. While Alexa may now appear on other Amazon devices like the Kindle (a hands-free page-turner which very, very few people need?), indications of the diversity of future uses may be read into Amazon’s strategic investment in seven companies which are working in home automation and monitoring, connected toys, fitness and kitchens. The common factor is the current obsession of the IT device industry, the Internet of Things.
For the network of connected objects to deliver data of value, connectivity must be fairly universal. That is the business logic driving both the industry of connected objects and the networks connecting them, like OneWeb. In less developed markets, the challenge remains the last mile.
The US, which led the development of the internet, has enjoyed a legacy hard-wired telecom system which delivered free data to consumers via dial-up modems when the network was opened up to the public. In fact, the landline network was so pervasive that it delayed the adoption of mobile telephony. India, on the contrary, would have remained in the digital Palaeolithic if it had waited for the unreliable landline network to mature.
Terrain, demographics and the availability of power have been serious inhibitors, and train travellers know that even today, large stretches of states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are innocent of mobile signals. But political issues have figured, too—not all that long ago, cellular providers in some areas of the Northeast quietly paid protection money to militant groups to prevent their towers from being bombed.
Telephony in India surged following the push given to mobile telephony by the Vajpayee government, and digital services followed rapidly. The deployment of wireless networks brought clunky phones which looked like traditional instruments but could be carried anywhere. Through an ethernet port, they provided painfully slow mobile internet, but ended the need to roll out cable into every home and office.
In other parts of the third world, too, wireless networks helped countries to leapfrog terrestrial issues. In the 1990s, villages in Southeast Asia off the phone grid were connected by a public bus which “harvested” email from servers in villages and passed them to the internet.
The Fidonet email network did something similar globally. Regional Fidonet servers acted as way-stations for mail which was dialled in, like on a bulletin board. In turn, they connected briefly with the internet once a day to pass mail back and forth. This attempt at basic connectivity pre-dated by almost two decades Facebook’s plans to provide mobile users with entry-level internet services for free. The old networks used public transport and dial-up modems to deliver the internet, while Facebook favours drones.
Now, OneWeb has gone to the logical next level, hosting its network on satellites in low earth orbit, far above the vagaries of terrain, weather and politics which bedevil the last mile. Its only vulnerable terrestrial presence is an inexpensive terminal which, in the third world context, can be afforded by neighbourhood and village bodies, institutions and local distributors. In time, it could become a consumer device. OneWeb has raised a quarter of its estimated first phase cost of $2 billion, and promises to revolutionise the geography and demographics of the connected world, and thereby the nature and purpose of the internet itself.