The telecoms industry represents one of the most dynamic sectors in the world. Only 25 years ago 90% of all activities took place via telephone calls over fixed telephone lines. Now, within the broader ICT industry, telecoms is underpinning all of the new developments in relation to the digital, sharing and interconnected economies. It facilitates new social and economic developments in all sectors such as e-health, e-education, e-business, smart grids, smart cities, e-government, and so on.
Furthermore it is a key factor in improving people’s lifestyle, delivering a whole range of social benefits. And this is not just the case in the developed world, where the smart phone is now omnipotent. One only has to look at the effect mobile phones have on the lives and the livelihood of many of the people in Africa, Asia and South America. It is just mindboggling, even with simple applications such as SMS.
The impact on the business and professional markets is that ICT is increasingly becoming a critical business element in their day-to-day operations, and it is clear that many sectors and individual organisations will have to transform themselves if they wish to remain competitive and to participate in the rapidly changing business models in which ICT is becoming a critical business tool.
Close to 70% of the global population now has access to telecoms services through mobile phones, the internet and social media. This shows that the developments are very much grassroots-driven – in other words, this is demand- rather than supply-driven.
The importance of broadband
It is clear that the incumbent telecommunication providers have great difficulty keeping up with the demand in telecoms services. Some US$200 billion is spent every year to fix problems in their networks, and this is on top of their normal maintenance activities.
The new digital services that people and businesses expect require infrastructure that has high capacity, low latency, high levels of reliability, is secure, protects privacy and so on; and only fibre networks can deliver this. We already see that this year for the first time there is, percentage-wise, more fibre in the global telecoms infrastructure than copper, and this will slowly but steadily increase over the next 5 to 10 years. This also applies to mobile networks – in the end mobile networks are fibre networks with only a last mile wireless component.
Governments have begun to understand the critical need for high-quality broadband networks for their social and economic development, and they are developing policies that are aimed at improving the quality of their national infrastructure. I was the co-initiator of the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development and globally there are now 140+ countries that have national broadband plans in place. Of course, implementing these plans is not easy, but good progress is made every year.
As a telecoms advisor to the UN, as well as to national governments, I have had personal experience with the development of broadband policies in the USA, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Qatar, and it is very rewarding to see that several of these countries are among the world leaders in these developments.
The digital, sharing and interconnected economy
Developments, strongly facilitated by developments in the ICT industry, are leading to massive economic transformation processes. We see that whole industry sectors and traditional business models have been replaced by new ones. The key reason for these transformations is that in some instances up to 80% of the costs of those traditional business models can be removed.
These processes are relentless and are going to force other sectors to transform as well. Developments linked to this include cloud computing, data centres, data analytics (big data), machine-to-machine (M2M), the internet-of-things (IoT) and blockchain.
The latter, especially, will have an enormous effect on the financial market, and it is going to take out significant costs – in this case in transaction processes. How this will all pan out is still uncertain but the fact that nearly all banks are looking seriously into this is a clear indication that it will potentially have an enormous effect on their businesses.
By removing the complexity from these systems others can now far more easily participate, and the question comes up as to whether these banks will still need to be the middle men in many of these processes. In the digital, sharing and interconnected economy other arrangements for transactions can also be developed, and bitcoin (as a subset of blockchain) is one such option. Its success has so far been limited mainly to criminal activities and the so-called dark internet, but this doesn’t mean that our inventive minds will not come up with better, more law-abiding applications in the near future.
Mobile payments are revolutionising the financial world in developing countries. In these countries most people don’t have a credit card – often don’t even have a bank account – and so entirely new financial systems are being developed through their mobile phones, linked to mobile payment systems, where the banks are no longer necessarily the leading parties.
In the communities-based sharing economy we see, in some cases, money disappearing altogether – people exchanging services in-kind – and, in other situations, the sharing economy facilitates extending voluntary services within the various communities. This will no doubt lead to other social innovations being developed.
Looking at all of the above the future of telecoms is very bright indeed, as people will want to access more and more services through telecommunications. This will drive the already massive investments that are taking place worldwide in infrastructure, devices and services: ICT investments are estimated at around US$3.5 trillion every single year.