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The Next Billion: A New Digital Generation

Massive uptake in broadband and new devices, staggering by themselves, forecasts unprecedented digital and social upheaval down the road.


One billion more people will be connected to the Internet in five short years than are connected today, creating a global digital middle class and lifting millions out of poverty worldwide. This is no wild guess — it’s insight drawn from Cisco’s 10th annual visual networking index. This index measures and predicts global Internet data traffic growth annually. This may very well be the swiftest uptake in technology in the history of the world.

And as more people join this digital community, 10 billion new things — digital devices like smartphones, tablets, watches and sensors — will be connected to the Internet, creating a radical shift in how we connect to each other and the world around us. Of the new devices, almost half will be things in our connected homes that will improve our comfort and safety, and some of the fastest-growing will be wearables that can improve our health and well-being, and cars that talk to each other and to us.

The massive uptake in broadband and new devices, staggering by themselves, forecasts unprecedented digital and social upheaval down the road. Business leaders and policymakers alike must come to grips with the changing demography of this new digital class and prepare now to meet the challenge.

Who are this next billion of unconnected being connected for the first time? No surprise, it’s largely not people in countries with a well-developed Internet such as the United States or Western Europe or Japan. In these countries, Internet adoption is maxing out, and compound growth rates are 1 percent or less.

Rather, the next digital generation is coming from emerging economies in the Middle East and Africa, Latin America and emerging Asia, including India, where compound growth rates are 8 percent to 10 percent. In most cases, Internet access won’t come from fixed wireline connections, but instead will come through mobile phones and other wireless devices.

These new digital citizens will have many of the same wants and desires that we all have: Better education for their children, with access to the world’s libraries and science experiments at their fingertips. Better health care made possible by connecting to providers far away. More responsive and effective governments. And new economic opportunities and jobs.

Just as many of us do today, this new connected generation will grow to appreciate the beauty of high-def video, whether it be to share videos over social media, have a real-time chat, or watch their favorite TV show, movie or sporting event. This is why projections for Internet data traffic shoot through the roof, with 80 percent of all global traffic being video. A billion more people watching hundreds of hours more of high-def and 4K will inevitably lead to huge surges of traffic — tripling Internet data traffic over the next five years, when it will reach a record two zettabytes.

The social implications, too, are profound. Internet access means a pathway out of poverty. For those of an entrepreneurial nature, it could mean access to microfunding and new customers. For others, it opens the door to jobs and training in the information technology world. It won’t happen overnight, but research shows that adopting and using the Internet increases one’s standard of living.

Meanwhile, the adoption of devices will grow in both developed and developing economies. We all love our smartphones, tablets and, for many of us, Fitbits and Apple Watches. This love affair will only continue to grow … everywhere.

So, too, will connections that take the human element out of the picture — so-called machine-to-machine communications. This offers great hope for real-time decision-making based on large amounts of data — such as to manage a smart grid, reduce leaks in an oil pipeline, or help us drive our cars.

As all this happens, it is imperative that policymakers ensure that there is adequate broadband infrastructure — both wired and wireless — that there is a basic level of fairness on the Internet, and that new business models and specialized services be allowed to flourish.

In this world, privacy and security are fundamental. They are essential to the trust necessary to support the Internet of Everything. There must be transparency about how our data is used, and security must be designed into products.

The opportunities for this new generation are immense, but so too are the challenges. The bottom line is this: The world is going digital, and there’s no turning back.

Robert Pepper is Cisco’s vice president for global technology policy. Reach him @rmpepper.

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