Fibre-based infrastructure requires vision and recognition of the fact that many of today's social, economic and sustainability problems can only be solved with the assistance of information and communications technology (ICT). In many situations the capacity, robustness, security and quality necessary for this calls for fibre optic infrastructures. This need will increase dramatically over the next 5 to 10 years as industries and whole sectors (healthcare, energy, media, retail) carry out the process of transforming themselves in order to much better address the challenges ahead.
Most discussions regarding the need for fibre optic infrastructure take place from the wrong perspective — based on how fast people need the internet to be when they download their emails, web information, games and movies. Fibre optic technology has very little to do with this — ultimately all of that 'residential' traffic will account for less than 50% of all the traffic that will eventually flow over fibre optic networks.
The real reason this type of network is needed relates to the social and economic needs of our societies, and there are many clear examples that indicate that we are running out of steam trying to solve some of our fundamental problems in traditional ways.
For instance, at this moment discussions are taking place in every single developed country in the world about the fact that the cost of healthcare is unsustainable. These costs will grow — over the next 20 years — to 40%-50% of total government budgets — clearly impossible. So we face a dilemma. Do we lower the standard of healthcare services, at the same time making them more costly for the end-user?
If we want to maintain our current lifestyle the only solution is to make the healthcare system more effective, efficient and productive. And this can only be done with the help of ICT. To make it more productive, health needs to be brought to the people rather than the other way around, as is the case at present. Similar examples apply to the education system, the energy systems and the management of cities and countries in general. We need to create smart cities, smart businesses and smart countries, with high-speed infrastructure, smart grids, intelligent buildings, etc.
In order to manage our societies and economies better we need to have much better information about what is happening within all of the individual ecosystems, and in particular information about how these different systems interact. Currently they all operate within silos and there is little or no cooperation or coordination between them. ICT can be the bridge to bring them together; to collect data from them and process it in real time. Information can then be fed back to those who are managing the systems, and those who operate within them, such as doctors, teachers, business people, bureaucrats, politicians — and, of course, to you and me.
Some of these data interactions are already happening around smartphones, social media, traffic and crowd control and weather information. This is only the start of what is known as the Internet of Things (IoT) or machine-to-machine communication (M2M).
ICT cannot solve world hunger, but without ICT world hunger cannot be solved, and this applies to all the important social and economic problems that societies around the world are now facing.
None of this can be done overnight; it requires massive transformations of industries and sectors. There is no instant business model available that will supply an immediate return on the investment that is needed to create these smart systems. All of these investments need to be looked at over a period of 10, 20 years and even longer. No private business will take such a business risk. To make it happen government leadership and government policies are needed.
This is also the message from the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development, and it applies to countries all over the world. More than 120 countries worldwide have now developed broadband policies, recognising that such infrastructure is critical to their development. The challenge now is to put these policies into practice/implement these policies, and at a time when government leadership around the world as at an all-time low.
Ultimately all of these developments will require national fibre optic networks. There simply is no other technology that can handle the capacity of data and applications that will be needed to run the cities and countries from today onwards. This infrastructure needs to be robust. It has to have enormous capacity. It needs to be secure and to be able to protect privacy. There is simply no other infrastructure technology that is up to that job.
So those business and government leaders who are in charge of looking towards the future do have an obligation to ask themselves, based on the above, whether we can afford not to have a fibre optic network.
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