10 fool-proof predictions for the Internet in 2020

Researchers expect more users, sensors. But will the `net be more secure?

There are many views about how to fix the Internet’s architecture, but there's widespread agreement about many aspects of the future Internet. Here's our list of 10 fool-proof predictions for what the Internet will look like in a decade.

Forty years after it was invented, the Internet is straining under the weight of cyber attacks, multimedia content and new mobile applications. In response, U.S. computer scientists are re-thinking every aspect of the Internet's architecture, from IP addresses to routing tables (see main story: 2020 Vision: Why you won't recognize the 'Net in 10 years) to overall Internet security. There are many views about how to fix the Internet's architecture, but there's widespread agreement about many aspects of the future Internet. Here's our list of 11 surefire bets for what the Internet will look like in a decade.

The Evolution of the Internet 

1. More people will use the Internet.

Today's Internet has 1.7 billion users, according to Internet World Stats. This compares with a world population of 6.7 billion people. There's no doubt more people will have Internet access by 2020. Indeed, the National Science Foundation predicts that the Internet will have nearly 5 billion users by then. So scaling continues to be an issue for any future Internet architecture.

2. The Internet will be more geographically dispersed.

Most of the Internet's growth over the next 10 years will come from developing countries. The regions with the lowest penetration rates are Africa (6.8%), Asia (19.4%) and the Middle East (28.3%), according to Internet World Stats. In contrast, North America has a penetration rate of 74.2%. This trend means the Internet in 2020 will not only reach more remote locations around the globe but also will support more languages and non-ASCII scripts.

3. The Internet will be a network of things, not computers.

As more critical infrastructure gets hooked up to the Internet, the Internet is expected to become a network of devices rather than a network of computers. Today, the Internet has around 575 million host computers, according to the CIA World Factbook 2009. But the NSF is expecting billions of sensors on buildings and bridges to be connected to the Internet for such uses as electricity and security monitoring. By 2020, it's expected that the number of Internet-connected sensors will be orders of magnitude larger than the number of users.

4. The Internet will carry exabytes — perhaps zettabytes — of content.

Researchers have coined the term "exaflood" to refer to the rapidly increasing amount of data — particularly high-def images and video – that is being transferred over the Internet. Cisco estimates that global Internet traffic will grow to 44 exabytes per month by 2012 — more than double what it is today. Increasingly, content providers such as Google are creating this content rather than Tier 1 ISPs. This shift is driving interest in re-architecting the Internet to be a content-centric network, rather than a transport network.

5. The Internet will be wireless.

The number of mobile broadband subscribers is exploding, hitting 257 million in the second quarter of 2009, according to Informa. This represents an 85% increase year-over year for 3G, WiMAX and other higher speed data networking technologies. Currently, Asia has the most wireless broadband subscribers, but the growth is strongest in Latin America. By 2014, Informa predicts that 2.5 billion people worldwide will subscribe to mobile broadband.

6. More services will be in the cloud.

Experts agree that more computing services will be available in the cloud. A recent study from Telecom Trends International estimates that cloud computing will generate more than $45.5 billion in revenue by 2015. That's why the National Science Foundation is encouraging researchers to come up with better ways to map users and applications to a cloud computing infrastructure. They're also encouraging researchers to think about latency and other performance metrics for cloud-based services.

7. The Internet will be greener.

Internet operations consume too much energy today, and experts agree that a future Internet architecture needs to be more energy efficient. The amount of energy consumed by the Internet doubled between 2000 and 2006, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. But the Internet's so-called Energy Intensity is growing at a slower rate than data traffic volumes as networking technologies become more energy efficient. The trend towards greening the Internet will accelerate as energy prices rise, according to experts pushing energy-aware Internet routing.

8. Network management will be more automated.

Besides weak security, the biggest weakness in today's Internet is the lack of built-in network management techniques. That's why the National Science Foundation is seeking ambitious research into new network management tools. Among the ideas under consideration are automated ways to reboot systems, self-diagnosing protocols, finer grained data collection and better event tracking. All of these tools will provide better information about the health and status of networks.

9. The Internet won't rely on always-on connectivity.

With more users in remote locations and more users depending on wireless communications, the Internet's underlying architecture can no longer presume that users have always-on connections. Instead, researchers are looking into communications techniques that can tolerate delays or can forward communications from one user to another in an opportunistic fashion, particularly for mobile applications. There's even research going on related to an inter-planetary Internet protocol, which would bring a whole new meaning to the idea of delay-tolerant networking.

10. The Internet will attract more hackers.

In 2020, more hackers will be attacking the Internet because more critical infrastructure like the electric grid will be online. The Internet is already under siege, as criminals launch a rising number of Web-based attacks against end users visiting reputable sites. Symantec detected 1.6 million new malicious code threats in 2008 – more than double the 600,000 detected the previous year. Experts say these attacks will only get more targeted, more sophisticated and more widespread in the future.

More than anything else, computer scientists who are working on redesigning the Internet are trying to improve its security. Experts agree that security cannot be an add-on in a redesign of the Internet. Instead, the new Internet must be built from the ground up to be a secure communications platform. Specifically, researchers are exploring new ways to ensure that the Internet of 2020 has confidentiality, integrity, privacy and strong authentication.

11. Make your own prediction for the Internet in 2020.

What do you think the Internet will look like in a decade? Make your own predictions in our comments field

Learn more about this topic

2020 Vision: Why you won't recognize the 'Net in 10 years

What's hot in the high-tech hype machine?

2010 Outlook: Better than 2009 and moderately wild

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