Cell phones and social media tools help topple Middle Eastern regimes. Telemedicine lets surgeons reach across time and space. Smart grids let power companies reduce fuel consumption and lower pollution. Networking has changed the world.
Today there are 5 billion devices connected to the Internet worldwide and 1 billion mobile workers. More than 500 million people log onto Facebook every day and collectively spend 700 billion minutes per month in this social sphere. This year, worldwide Internet traffic will hit 28 billion gigabytes per month and continue to grow at a compound annual rate of 34%.
Network connectivity is influencing the evolution of human beings, posits Cisco Chief Futurist Dave Evans. "A few hundred years ago, if we wanted to communicate or share knowledge, it might have taken weeks or months. Now we can share information with millions or billions of people in seconds, anywhere on the planet. Because of that, people are learning and communicating and evolving at exponential rates."
The World Wide Web has evolved to become the social web, Evans says. "It's become a very human-facing tool. We're interconnecting with one another, we're sharing life experiences, we're offering education to millions of people who never had access to those resources."
Some 2 billion people use the Web today. More than a billion Tweets are posted each week. Every minute, 35 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube.
In Egypt, youth-led protests were accelerated by social media and resulted in the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak. When the massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan in March, on-the-ground witnesses posted photos and videos online within minutes.
Just a few decades ago, we did not have such quick access to the rich mix -- video, media and photos -- that accompanies world events today, Evans says.
In our everyday lives, networks have changed long established routines. We shop online and consult peer reviews before pulling the trigger on purchases.
Education is increasingly conducted online. Nearly 30% of all college and university students now take at least one course online, according to Sloan Consortium.
Work is an activity, not a destination. As many as 30 million people currently work from home at least one day a week, according to Telework Research Network, and the home office market will add nearly 2 million home-based businesses and more than three million corporate home office households between 2011 and 2015, forecasts IDC.
Entertainment is a few clicks away - and gobs of it. It would take more than two years to watch the amount of video that will cross global IP networks every second in 2014, estimates Cisco. It would take 72 million years to watch the amount of video that will cross global IP networks during calendar year 2014.
Being connected is so ingrained in our daily lives that even in sleep, many people want to be within an arm's reach of their gadgets. Sixty-five percent of American adults sleep with their cell phones on or right next to their beds, according to Pew Internet & American Life Project. Among young adults ages 18 to 29, that number rises to 90%.
Rise of the machines
But we're not the only ones benefiting from connectivity. In fact, the number of connected humans is dwarfed by the number of Internet-connected devices. The 5 billion devices connected today are expected to grow 10-fold by 2020.
Everything from nanny cams to soda machines and cars and smart buildings. Ultimately these things will start to build "social networks among themselves, maybe ad hoc, based on a particular condition," Evans says.
Imagine if someone is injured at home and triggers a call for help via a smart watch, jewelry or electronic textile, for instance. The phone system could dial 911 and request assistance. Video cameras in the home could focus their lenses on the injured person and broadcast a live feed to healthcare professionals. Other network-connected devices could determine the most optimal route for emergency vehicles based on current traffic conditions, unlock doors and alert hospital staff to the person's pending arrival.
These ad-hoc social networks could come together as needed and dissipate when the need is passed.
Meanwhile, across all industries, the availability of low-cost, low-power sensors has spawned vast networks of interconnected devices that are redefining business operations. Utilities are deploying smart sensors to help manage the consumption of resources such as water and electricity, for instance. Cities are blanketing streets with sensors to collect traffic data and monitor congestion. Retailers are using wireless sensors to better monitor and secure their inventories.
Machine-to-machine networking is a fundamental shift in the way networking is evolving, says Drew Clark, director of strategy for IBM's Venture Capital Group. IBM CEO Sam Palmisano likens these smart networks to a central nervous system for the planet, Clark says. "There are now billions and going on trillions of connected devices out there that collectively make up this kind of central nervous system."
"The challenge is to be able to make sense of the data, to understand what the data is telling you about your business, your city, the health of your water system, or the operational state of the car you're driving," Clark says.
And where that analysis takes place is changing. "It's not like in days past, when data was shoveled back to some central place and then sifted through in some giant warehouse," Clark says. "Sophisticated systems run at the edge of the network and help analyze real-time data coming from sensors and make decisions."
A police department, for example, can use predictive analytics to figure out where to deploy officers based on what types of crimes are occurring, and where and when they're happening, for instance.
But perhaps the biggest impact of machine-to-machine network development is the emergence of smart grids which promise to help utility companies deliver electricity more efficiently and reliably.
In early implementations, electric utilities deployed smart meters that display information on gas and electricity consumption, which can help consumers better manage energy use and reduce their bills. The next step is giving consumers tools to automate decisions about when to run certain types of devices - say a clothes dryer or air conditioner - based on the time of day and variable, demand-based energy pricing.
But smart meters are just one element of a smart grid, and current efforts are aimed at moving upstream, to where the distribution of electricity takes place. Analog devices such as transformers, relays, switches and circuit breakers are ripe for smart networking, so companies can more easily keep tabs on their maintenance and the loads placed on them.
The bigger picture goal is to integrate what today are silos of energy generation, transmission, distribution and consumption systems so resources - including newer elements such as renewable energy sources -- can be coordinated nationwide to better handle demand, tailor supply more efficiently, and reduce pollution and costs. "We're talking about networking devices that have never been networked before," Clark says. "We've got to come up with protocols: How does a transformer talk to a switch? And what do they say to each other? That's the new frontier."
Other infrastructure that is becoming networked includes roads, bridges and dams.
"There's actually something called smart cement," Clark says. "Carbon fibers are embedded in the cement and when there's a sheer or a certain kind of pressure, the fibers move and change their resistance." By monitoring that resistance, engineers can detect cracks in structures that need attention before they become life-threatening.
Even parking is getting the sensor treatment. A start-up called Streetline is deploying intelligent sensors in parking spaces and retrofitting existing parking meters to track everything from open spaces to unpaid metered spaces and meter maintenance. The goal is to use these sensors to help drivers find available spaces, cities identify meter-cheaters, and administrators figure out how much to charge for parking, based on demand.
More significantly, faster parking will cut down on air pollution and traffic congestion in urban areas. Transportation Alternatives has found that between 28% and 45% of city traffic is generated by people cruising around looking for a parking space. Based on a study conducted in the Manhattan's Upper West Side area, the advocacy group estimates that motorists cruise a total of 366,000 miles a year in this area as they search for metered parking, generating 325 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
"The network is an enabling platform for lots and lots of new kinds of applications," Clark says.
"The network," of course, now includes all things mobile.
"The days of fixed infrastructure where you're sitting chained to your desk in front of a PC - that's going away very quickly," Cisco's Evans says. "It's about being agile and mobile, whether you're 30,000 feet up in the air, going 60 miles an hour in a car, walking in between buildings, or walking in a park, you're always going to be connected with broadband and mobile devices."
The connectivity of mobile devices has come a long way in the iPhone era and as 3G and 4G services have expanded. At the end of 2010, the number of mobile subscriptions globally surpassed 5 billion, according to data from ABI Research. That number is expected to climb to 6.6 billion wireless subscriptions by 2016 - and 40% of those will be mobile broadband-enabled.
More than 1 billion cell phones are shipped every year, says Mike Morgan, senior analyst for mobile devices at ABI Research. "Anywhere on planet that you go, one out of every two people will have a cell phone. I'm not even sure you can say that about shoes," Morgan says.
The data heavyweights are the smartphones, which are putting pressure on cellular networks. Last year 302 million smartphones shipped - a whopping 71% increase over 2009's shipment levels, according to ABI Research.
"Smartphones are on the cusp of going from early adopter to mainstream," Morgan says. Still, in the big picture, worldwide mobility is nowhere near ubiquitous. "We're in the caveman ages of global connectivity," Morgan says. "We've got our clubs and our fire and right now, we're trying to learn how to use these things efficiently."
At one extreme are mobile warriors using smartphones to browse the Web, access enterprise applications, update their Facebook status and locate nearby resources. For this population, a common problem is how to juggle multiple devices - a laptop, tablet and smartphone - and their respective data plans.
At another extreme are people who have a cell phone but no electricity, so they pay someone in a nearby town to charge their cell phones. These are the types of users in emerging markets that Nokia is trying to reach through its Life Tools project. Why? Because the correlation between connectivity and commerce is clear: Where there is connectivity, gross domestic output increases by 10%, Morgan says.
Nokia's Life Tools services focus on providing targeted agriculture information - such as local market prices and weather data -- and educational tools via inexpensive mobile devices. "Maybe it's not full Internet, but it's giving them a piece of the Internet that is immediately impactful upon their life," Morgan says. "That's where you really learn the value of connectivity."
Meanwhile, for the mobile network operators, the challenge is limited capacity and how to become more spectrally efficient. Millions of smartphone users are being added to the ranks, and the devices are becoming more and more data hungry.
"The cellular network is defined by how much frequency is available. That's a natural resource that we cannot reproduce or make more of. All we can ever do is use it more efficiently," Morgan says.
In addition to capacity and scalability issues, today's networks -- cellular and wired -- are vulnerable to natural disasters and catastrophic infrastructure failures. Harsh reminders of the fragility of our network infrastructure are propelling some to rethink communications and connectivity.
"Increasingly we seem to be living in a world where the infrastructure collapses dramatically," says Andrew Lippman, associate director of the MIT Media Lab and co-director of the MIT Communications Futures Program. "Having another way of communicating is becoming, I think, a social necessity as well as a technical necessity."
Among the work MIT is doing is a partnership with Qualcomm in the area of proximal networks. These peer-to-peer application networks create direct links among grids of devices, providing the requisite application and service capabilities of a network. The devices can automatically discover one another to create ad hoc networks as needed, swapping personal and informational data.
Proximal networks are about answering a question rather than getting to a specific IP address or connecting to a specific telephone number, Lippman says.
"There's a whole world of possibilities for building networks that do things like answer questions," Lippman says. "What's traffic like three miles down the road? What bakery nearby has croissants coming out of the oven right now? Is there someone around who can help me because I just cut myself with a piece of glass on the beach? Who wants to share a cab with me?"
Proximal networks are based on resources that are nearby, but do more than simply consult GPS to retrieve a geographic solution. The peer-to-peer style is driven by a few key benefits. One is scalability. A peer-to-peer system can grow without being overloaded, Lippman says. A second benefit is the ability to operate free of an infrastructure. Thirdly, it's about building a style of communications that's not based on addresses, but rather relationships and context.
"There are questions that you want to ask the space around you," Lippman says. "You want to blast out offers, requests, information and questions, and have those questions be answered or responded to in an appropriate way by your own device."
It's easy to imagine how proximal networks might add more depth to our communications, personally and professionally — adding even more power to networked connectivity.
"If you look at the impact the network has had over the last two to three decades, it has been significant," Cisco's Evans says. But it's only the beginning. "We've just begun this journey and it's going to be a really great journey."