In Snow Crash, a science fiction novel published in 1992, Neal Stephenson envisioned a future in which people lived in a bleak, grim physical world, but it was possible for them to "jack in" through a computer network to the Metaverse, a virtual cyberworld that was much more dramatic and glamorous than the "real" world.
As it turned out, online technology developed in a different direction than Stephenson imagined. Although cyberspace has continued to evolve, it has not grown more separate from our ordinary, everyday lives, but rather has become ever more intimately entwined with it.
Here are two recent examples of what I mean. This summer, I was driving from Denver to Colorado Springs, a 70-mile trip on Interstate 25 that under normal conditions should take slightly more than an hour. But on this occasion, I found myself in a jam that brought traffic to a near standstill. I was surprised when Google Maps, which I was following on my iPhone, suggested that I get off the interstate at the next exit and use a side road. I gave it a try, and in a very few minutes, I had detoured around the stalled traffic and was back on I-25 moving at the speed limit.
After arriving in Colorado Springs, I proposed an outing to the Garden of the Gods, a collection of spectacular red rock formations just outside of town. Since the weather seemed unsettled and I knew that thunderstorms are a frequent summer afternoon occurrence in that part of the world, I checked Dark Sky, an app on my phone that provides "hyperlocal" weather forecasts. According to the app, rain was likely to begin at my exact location in the next 15 minutes and last for less than one hour. I postponed my visit till the next morning, when the weather was fine.
These two apps demonstrate how digital technology is connecting with and enhancing our lives in modest and often unnoticed but very useful ways. This linkage has been made possible by the emergence of wireless broadband networks that provide near-ubiquitous, near-constant online access. This is a big shift from the early days of the Internet, when getting online meant using a PC to dial up and log on to a slow narrowband network. While I still go online from my computer (over a broadband connection that is several thousand times faster than the first 300 bps modem that I used back in the last century), the majority of my online time is through the smartphone that accompanies me in my pocket wherever I go. Even when I'm using my laptop computer, I go online wirelessly via Wi-Fi rather than having to be tethered to a specific spot. In the old days, going online was a discrete occasion (a "session"); now it just part of my daily life.
A wireless world
And I'm not alone. In fact, the United States now has as many high-speed wireless connections as it has people. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently reported that the U.S. has joined six other OECD countries in reaching 100% penetration of wireless broadband, which means that there are now as many wireless subscriptions as there are Americans. (Finland remains the world's most connected country, with nearly 125 connections for every 100 residents.)
Smartphones that include robust Internet access are rapidly becoming the dominant mobile device: This year, according to the research firm IDC, more than 1 billion smartphones will be sold worldwide.
Even more remarkable is how intensively we use these devices. According to KPCB's Mary Meeker, we now consult our mobile phones an average of 150 times a day to check for everything from text messages and voice calls to social media and news alerts. We also use them to find our way, download music, play online games, make reservations, and share photos with friends, all of which are made possible by continuous access to broadband.
The extent of our reliance on mobile phones was further highlighted by a study from the Ericsson ConsumerLab that found that more than 40% of smartphone users globally use their phones to log onto the Internet before they get out of bed in the morning, and more than 50% consult their phones shortly after they get up! Usage levels continue to rise throughout the day, and half of all users access the Internet in bed at night before they go to sleep. The result, according to the researchers, is that "we are entering an era in which it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about online versus offline for the simple reason that we are constantly switching between the two." In fact, they conclude, we are now "more or less constantly connected to the Internet."
What makes mobile apps so appealing (not to say addictive) is that they provide direct, immediate access at the tap of a finger to the content or the service that we want. We barely have to think about "navigation" or the "interface" on our devices to tap into the power of the technology. It's just "there." The underlying power of apps comes from their ability to make use of vast amounts of computing power in the cloud to combine our individual information with contextual data to deliver highly customized services to us.
If anything, the connection between us and the Net is about to become even more intimate and persistent. Those of us who wear digital activity trackers have become accustomed to having every step we take counted and recorded (and, in many cases, shared with others). New categories of wearables are emerging, including digitally connected eyewear (Google Glass), earwear (Peared) and wristwear (like the new Apple Watch), and even "smart Band-Aids" that track a variety of physiological functions.
Beyond wearables are implantables. All cardiac pacemakers sold in the U.S. are already required to collect and transmit data on the health of the user and of the device itself. As physiological sensors become ever smaller and more powerful, we will use them to continuously monitor our health. And beyond these personal devices lies the whole universe of the Internet of Things which will literally put billions of discrete devices online, ushering in what the Institute for the Future describes as "the age of networked matter."
As we move toward having virtually everything wired and online, the Metaverse is becoming our world.
The most precious resource
The most critical resource in enabling the Internet to be everywhere is the electromagnetic spectrum that is used for wireless communications. Like beachfront property, it is a finite quantity. A further limitation is that different bands in the spectrum are better suited to different uses. What makes wireless communications so compelling is that it provides a full range of links from very short range (like Bluetooth) to medium range (Wi-Fi and cellular service) to long range (radio broadcasting).
Since 1912, the federal government has had the authority to allocate spectrum to different uses and different users, and since 1934 the responsibility for regulating all civilian spectrum use has rested with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Some uses (e.g., broadcasting and cell service) are "licensed," which means that the FCC must grant permission to a specific party to use a particular part of the spectrum, while others (e.g., Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) are unlicensed, meaning that anyone is free to use them as long as they conform to certain technical standards. For example, one of the newer unlicensed bands has been assigned by the FCC for Medical Body Area Networks (MBANs) that enable short-range, low-power communication for personal health monitoring.
But civilian use including everything from radio and TV broadcasting and satellites to cell phone service and Wi-Fi represents only a small fraction of total spectrum use, with the government (and mainly the Defense Department) controlling nearly three-quarters of all bandwidth. Unfortunately, as the range of wireless applications has mushroomed, the amount of bandwidth that has been made available for civilian use has not kept pace. The reality is that most spectrum today is underutilized. The problem we face is not so much a shortage of spectrum as it is an inefficient system for allocating and using it.
It is noteworthy that the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has started to consider updating of the country's basic communications law, devoted one of its initial set of white papers to the topic of "Modernizing U.S. Spectrum Policy." Among the questions it raises are: what steps should be taken to increase the amount of spectrum available for commercial use, what role unlicensed spectrum should play vs. licensed spectrum, and whether FCC licenses should permit flexible spectrum use rather than specifying a specific use.
Fortunately, new technologies are providing new solutions to the problem of limited spectrum. Techniques such as beamforming and active antennas, band agile radios, and transmission schemes such as OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access) will enable many more people to share the same spectrum without interfering with each other. As policymakers consider the mechanisms for spectrum allocation, they need to take into account opportunities offered by these new approaches, as well as by even newer technologies that will emerge in the future.
Given our reliance on the wireless Internet, the issue of spectrum allocation is particularly important. And because various uses of the spectrum, ranging from ultra-short range (body area networks) to medium and longer range (Wi-Fi and cellular service), work together to deliver services that are enormously valuable, spectrum allocation policy must be considered holistically. More specifically, we will need a long-term strategy from policymakers to ensure they are doing everything they can to make more spectrum available for consumer use.
Years ago, Al Gore and others used to refer to the Internet as the "Information Superhighway." Today it is much more than that. It is, in fact, fast becoming an essential part of the fabric of our lives. While telecommunications policy may seem esoteric, it impacts virtually every thing we do. So we better get it right.
Richard Adler is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has written widely about the future of broadband and its impact on fields such as education, healthcare, government and commerce.