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Spotlight on the technologies shaping communications for the future – Simon Saunders

Published: 5 July 2023
Last updated: 12 January 2024

On Thursday 14 January 2021 we published a report on the emerging technologies that could shape the communications industry in the future. The following foreword from Professor Simon Saunders, Ofcom’s Director of Emerging and Online Technology, is taken from that report.

The spirit of innovation and decades of pushing technological boundaries have led to the creation of every one of the communication services that we take for granted today.

Whether it’s connecting people with fast, reliable broadband so they can work, shop and socialise at home and on the move – or the increasingly diverse range of ways we can now watch high quality broadcast content – technology advances have made what just decades ago would be considered unthinkable, everyday reality.

But these technologies have deep historical roots. The wireless and fibre networks we use today depend on physical principles first established by James Clark Maxwell in 1861, and on mathematical limits developed by Claude Shannon in 1948. And it took another 48 years for Claude Berrou to show how engineers could reach those limits using turbo coding.

We've seen this pattern of early physical and mathematical principles leading to decades of engineering work in computing too. The fundamentals of what can be computed were established by Alan Turing in Cambridge in 1936, and then turned into a practical computer architecture by John von Neumann in 1945. Networked computers communicating through the protocols established by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn in 1974 led to the creation of the Internet, and the invention of the World Wide Web by British engineer Tim Berners-Lee in 1989.

And with wireless and wired capacity doubling every 18 months from the 1970s into the 21st century, and computing power growing at a similar rate, we have phenomenal growth in data used on mobile, fixed and broadcast systems. Without these advances, the services we rely on today to communicate and get our news and entertainment, simply wouldn’t have been possible.

As the UK’s independent communications regulator, it's essential Ofcom keeps aware of changing technology. This allows us to consider how these changes can affect the sectors we regulate now, and in the future. And it informs the actions we take to make sure people and businesses in the UK continue to enjoy high quality communications services and are protected from any risks these new technologies pose. We monitor the communications industry closely and many emerging technologies are already well-known to us. But we recognise there will be others that are not, which could still have a major impact on the consumers of tomorrow.

So in spring 2020, we decided to directly ask the world’s leading technologists for their views on what the next game-changing technologies could be. We carried out dozens of interviews and also invited anyone with insights and evidence on new technologies to contribute to our research.

Through this process, we discovered a huge range of exciting technologies. Some will lead to new, richer communication experiences, involving immersive technology that enables us to touch, move - and perhaps even smell - at a distance. Others, such as clusters of satellites and new network architectures, could massively expand the coverage, availability, speed and consistency of wireless and wired networks. And some advances might allow optical fibre - in which signals already travel at the speed of light - to carry signals even faster!

New materials, devices and quantum physics, could fire the starting gun for a new wave of engineering advances. And while some of these advances could take decades to come to fruition, others could change the way we communicate in the near future.

This report and the accompanying video content we have produced may be the first output of this work, but it is by no means the end – nor should it be seen as an exhaustive list of every innovative technology being developed.   It can be no more than a sample, and the omission or inclusion of any technology shouldn’t be taken as a signal of our view of its importance. Nor are these our predictions for the future: this is a summary of the technologies that have been flagged to us by worldwide experts.

But we believe our findings offer a unique insight into how innovation can ensure a bright future for the UK's communications. We will continue to develop our work in this area, leaving no stone unturned as we engage with people and businesses across the communications world to identify the technologies of tomorrow – and what they could mean for you and me as consumers.

So we want to continue this conversation and play our part in helping the communications industry to constantly evolve and innovate.

Finally, I’d like to express our profound thanks to the many experts around the world who have shared their time and inspirational thoughts with us.

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