By Simon Bond

It is precisely in times of uncertainty that people most want to know what’s next. And with so much going on globally right now, the appetite has never been larger.

Forty percent of the world population is under the age of twenty-four, and by 2030, more than 70 percent of the world’s people will live in cities, with most of them located within fifty miles of the sea. Furthermore, by 2025, the whole world’s population will likely be connected to mobile phones and the Internet, which means connectivity is a major driver of the deep shift toward a more complex global system.

Connectivity itself — alongside demographics, capital markets, labour productivity, and technology, is thus a major source of momentum in the global economy. There is no better investment than connectivity.

Government spending on physical infrastructure — what is known as gross-fixed capital formation — such as roads and bridges, and social infrastructure, such as medical care and education, is considered investment (rather than consumption) because it saves costs in the long run and generates widespread benefits for society.

Building walls is not the answer, and in fact, as Alexandra Novosseloff has written, “A wall ends its life as a tourist attraction". And indeed, almost all fences are terribly costly and ineffective responses to problems that borders cannot solve. 

Borders matter only where they matter; other lines matter more most of the time. Hardly anywhere are they a more significant factor in the fate of nations than what crosses them. We are building a new world order — literally.

Understanding cause and effect requires complex thinking about the interplay of demographics and politics, ecology and technology. Borders tell us who is divided from whom by political geography. Infrastructure tells us who is connected to whom via functional geography. As the lines that connect us supersede the borders that divide us, functional geography is becoming more important than political geography, which makes the recent announcement from the US FCC about the next wave of connectivity even more important.

In July, US Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Tom Wheeler, took a seat, grasped a set of controls, and guided an excavator that happened to be 1,400 miles away.

By moving dirt in Dallas through a remote hook-up from the FCC’s Washington offices earlier this year, Wheeler showed the promise of what could be the largest and most lucrative expansion of the internet yet.

In mid-July, the FCC took a major step toward boosting wireless speeds 10-fold by voting unanimously to open little-used airwaves to purposes as varied as remote surgery, lightning-fast video downloads and factory robotics. The network that will flow over the frequencies in the next few years will be known as 5G, or fifth generation, to succeed the 4G networks that carry music and movies to smartphones today.

"We’re turning loose the incredible innovators of this country,” Wheeler said just before the commissioners voted in Washington. 

So what is 5G, and why is it so important? The implications are far reaching and will transform many areas of economies everywhere. Transport, logistics, real estate, entertainment, healthcare, banking, retail, recreation, investment, all areas that will be affected in ways that are difficult to comprehend right now.

If we’re all to use our mobile devices to work and play anywhere, we want access to streaming services and all our own “stuff”, instantly on devices as small as a smartphone or as large as the screen in an auditorium – properly formatted for the size of the screen, of course.

We’re already socially networked, 24 hours per day, 7 days a week. We want to be able to share versions of our stuff – photos, video, data, whatever – with friends, colleagues, and customers – wherever they may be.

This need for high-speed connectivity is a common denominator as we look ahead to fifth generation, or 5G networks. Achieving 24/7 access to, and sharing of, all our “stuff” requires that we continue on our current path: going far beyond simple voice and data services, and moving to a future state of “everything, everywhere and always connected”. The explosion of wireless data demand includes analysts predicting anything between 20 and 50 billion devices by the year 2020.

Studies into future user demands give network operators the goal of creating an infrastructure that provides the impression of limitless capacity in any situation, including in venues such as sports stadiums and concerts where there are dense user populations.

Copper has become the “last yards”, rather than “last mile” medium, as fiber-to-the-curb (sometimes “fiber to the-cabinet”) and even fiber-to-the-home networks provide the high-speed broadband connectivity that’s required for high-definition video streaming and like services. These improvements have produced a “chicken and egg” conundrum for mobile network operators: the more data capacity they make available, the more complex and data-hungry applications are developed for smartphones and tablets, and the more sophisticated the demands of end-users become.

The latest of these demands is “seamless connectivity” – the ability to move an application amongst devices: for instance, tablet to smartphone to home entertainment centre – without interruption of the content.

To provide this capability requires access to, and control of, the content over multiple networks: WiFi hotspot, cellular and landline. (It’s not just a technical challenge – associated billing needs a plethora of roaming agreements as well.)

What’s next? In all this, there is one certainty that must be considered: wireless spectrum is limited. In the long run, this must mean only those connections which MUST be mobile should be wireless. As much service delivery must be routed through fixed (fiber) networks to as close as possible to the point of consumption for frequency re-use. Below is a map of some of the current undersea cable capacity, a picture tells a thousand words.

We’re already seeing the rise of television and radio services delivered over the internet, with more choice of material and timing than terrestrial or satellite broadcast can match. And in mobile networks, today’s WiFi offload becomes the starting point for the norm of tomorrow, freeing up cellular system capacity to give mobile users the best possible service.

However, with mobile data consumption currently forecast to almost double year-on-year for the next five years, the network operators maintain they will struggle to meet long-term demand without even more spectrum. Freeing up frequency bands currently used for other systems will become a major priority.

This future ubiquitous, ultra-high bandwidth communication infrastructure will drive the future of the networked society.