Into the Future: Where are Communications Heading?
Speech by Sharon White to the Deloitte/Enders conference:
“Media & Telecoms 2017 & Beyond”, 2 March 2017
This is very much a forward-thinking event: “2017 and beyond”. So today I’d like to look to the future.
I want to draw breath and consider what lies ahead for media, telecoms – and the technology we need to keep communications current.
I will look to where innovation may take us in the coming decade, and consider some fundamental questions that will be raised of regulators and industry.
Because, over the course of the next ten years, things will look very different. Whole sectors of our economy promise to be transformed by a leap forward in technology and connections.
Just yesterday, the Culture Secretary explained how the Government aims to build on the UK’s proud history of technology innovation.
She put forward a Digital Strategy designed to encourage skills and entrepreneurship in fields that promise rapid growth and innovation – from virtual reality, to cyber security and artificial intelligence.
One of the great pleasures of working in our sector is the astonishing pace of change – something I’ve been privileged to witness in my two short years at Ofcom.
In 2015, average broadband speeds were a third of what they are today. Britons were using less than half the data they do now, in the home and on their mobiles.
Today there are more files, photos, songs and videos riding on our networks than ever before.
In fact, the amount of data flowing through our mobile phones has grown ten-fold in five years. Some estimates suggest it may be fifty times higher in ten years’ time.
Increasingly, digital devices are woven indelibly into our lives. Where futurologists once spoke excitedly of an ‘information superhighway’, now most people travel upon it each day of their lives.
But we are approaching a critical junction. Within the next couple of years, superfast broadband and 4G mobile will have reached almost every home and office in the UK, thanks to a mix of commercial and public investment
As these faster networks become the norm, we share the Government’s aim that everyone should benefit, and no-one should lack a decent connection.
Once that is achieved, the evidence shows us that ‘5G’ – the fifth generation of mobile services – can help meet future demand and open up new opportunities.
This is no longer a twinkle in the technologist’s eye. Early trials of devices should begin later this year, with the first services expected in the UK by 2020.
Ofcom has spent time with industry and academic partners – such as the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre in Guildford – to identify how 5G will work, and what it will mean.
5G could support connections so fast and responsive that they no longer constrain the mobile user. This change will not arrive as a glittering new network, but as a combination of better 4G technology and new mobile standards.
So what will it deliver? Well, broadly speaking, we think 5G services will fall into three categories.
First, better mobile broadband. 5G should provide more reliable access to the web. It should allow people to work, listen to music or watch mobile TV, even in congested areas with huge numbers of people. Without 5G to support future demands, our current networks would struggle.
Second, 5G should help enable the ‘Internet of Things’ – which, after much talk, is starting to become a practical reality. Although like some here today, I’ve been waiting several years for my fridge to order a pint of milk, and it hasn’t yet obliged.
Understandably, some people feel this technological revolution has been overcooked. Certainly the labels can be misleading. There will, for example, be no one Internet of Things. Instead, major sectors of the economy will develop their own products, in their own time, to address their own challenges.
Already, aspects of our environment – from parking spaces to water levels – are being tracked by online networks. Connected consumers are buying 3 million wrist devices in the UK each year.
Clearly, this is just the start. Ofcom’s research suggests that connected devices are on the cusp of taking off in our homes and offices, on our roads and our railways. We predict 100m of these machines in the UK within five years, up from just 13m last year.
They will span every sector – from connected parcels and fleet-tracking in the postal network; to personalised medical devices and treatments; to environmental sensors that monitor pollution in real time.
Third, we think 5G will support new applications that rely on ultra-reliable networks to send data back-and-forth in milliseconds.
These could include networks that manage traffic in real time, or provide live data to emergency response teams.
We could also see the dawn of a new age of smart manufacturing, where managers can see, access and control every machine and process. Each device in the manufacturing chain would generate data and insight to increase performance, predict problems and boost productivity.
The emerging challenges
Other developments will be hard to predict.
And therein lies our first challenge. Can we, the regulator, show enough agility and foresight to ensure our rules remain effective, and help to keep markets competitive?
Technology holds the power to change the competitive landscape in ways that are hard to predict. Consider the algorithms that have come to dispense daily news to millions.
Regulate too slowly, and the market may face changes that are hard to unwind. Regulate with haste, and we risk stifling innovation and the incentive to invest.
To achieve that balance, perhaps we may need to reimagine Ofcom for the future. We would hope to be a regulator with the right balance of economic, technological and cultural expertise to ensure that people and businesses benefit from the new, super-connected world.
That means keeping pace as our sectors continue to converge.
Most of our citizens are now continuously connected by the phones in their pockets. Broadcasters have yet to fully address that audience.
Meanwhile, network and content providers are jostling for position in a market where mergers may hamper competition or reduce choice.
At the same time, as the spectrum regulator, we must create enough space in the airwaves to support all those 5G phones, cars, sensors and machines.
Because if spectrum supply doesn’t keep up with demand, we could face a ‘capacity crunch’. Innovation could slow. Networks could struggle to support the growing needs of consumers, businesses, viewers and listeners. And the UK’s position as a world-leading digital economy may come under threat.
Likewise, if the UK’s physical networks don’t evolve to meet consumers’ expectations, our always-on society might hit the buffers.
Will industry build networks sufficiently fast, reliable and secure to support this explosion of new technology? For the UK, that means continuing to update an historic telecoms network that still contains age-old copper. Crucially, it means more investment in fully fibre networks.
It also means building separate, secure mobile networks capable of withstanding extreme weather, fire, vandalism or sabotage – so they can support life-critical communications between vehicles or medical equipment. In the smart cities of the future, more connections will mean more potential points of failure.
Just as networks must become more secure, so too must our data. This will be even more important in a world where CCTV networks combine to recognise faces, or computers routinely monitor our movements.
Here we encounter some profound questions, which society will debate and Government address. Some issues may also fall to us; others to our sister regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Because, before long, the ethical and security questions posed by modern communications networks will be more numerous and complex than ever before.
Already, personal data is the true currency of the web. But how much more of it will we, and future generations, be willing to trade in return for future services? Might we offer even our DNA to bring about life-saving medical advances?
Should that data rest in corporate hands, held as coinage or collateral by the giants of technology, finance and pharmaceuticals? If so, how might these companies provide sufficient security and value to justify such a transaction?
Strikingly, our research shows that personal data concerns are the biggest barrier to people’s willingness to adopt connected devices.
But would we feel happier volunteering our digital histories, our characteristics and locations to Governments or public bodies, in exchange for quicker transport, better healthcare or safer streets?
On these subjects, the communications regulators of the future may need to invoke as much moral philosophy as we do competition economics.
In the shorter term, our growing reliance on digital technology demands ever-greater vigilance against cyber attacks.
The Government is already tackling these questions, as are many of you within industry. Last month the Chancellor opened the National Cyber Security Centre, tasked with ensuring protection and privacy as we enter an age of unprecedented data exchange.
Of course, that exchange spans national borders. Today’s data travels through the air, under sea and over global networks at the speed of light. So the Internet of Things will pose new questions of jurisdiction, and demand even greater collaboration between national regulators and governments.
These are just some of the questions that lie ahead. To answer them will demand all of our collective endeavour and expertise.
But I believe that, together, we can find solutions to these challenges.
We’ve already made a start, with our work to avoid that future ‘capacity crunch’.
Our next big spectrum auction will see higher frequencies – good for carrying lots of data– made available for 5G.
Yesterday, at a transmitter near Selkirk, our colleagues at Freeview began the process of moving the UK’s digital TV channels to new airwaves, freeing up further spectrum for mobile.
And those mobile masts we see today could increasingly be supported by thousands of small, low-power transmitters attached to streetlights and litter bins. That will mean more mobile ‘cells’, and extra capacity for people on the move.
These developments matter, because history tells us that better networks will always be needed.
Consumers and businesses should not be constrained by infrastructure that fails to keep pace with their needs and ambitions.
Nor can the UK afford to lose its place as a world-leading digital nation. Just as we led the first, so we must lead the fourth industrial revolution – a fusion of the physical, digital and biological worlds that holds untold promise.
Being at the forefront of this revolution is even more crucial as we establish new trading relationships with the rest of the world.
The collective vision of universal coverage, ultrafast fibre, first-class 5G networks and ever-more connected devices is an exciting one.
I look forward to working with you to achieve it.