The future of the Internet was very much present at the 15th Asia-Pacific Telecommunity Policy and Regulatory Forum (APT PRF) in Singapore last week. Much of the conversation was around anticipated developments in mobile, touted to be the fastest adopted technology of all time and central to increased digital take-up in the region. The trend is easily tangible in economies like Japan, where ultrahigh-speed mobile broadband subscriptions had surpassed those of fixed line two years ago.
And this is only a hint of things to come. Gartner projects that the number of connected ‘things’ will go up to 25 billion by 2020 from 4.9 billion today--exceeding smartphones and PCs combined by nearly five times. Meanwhile, investment in the Internet of Things (IoT) is gaining traction outside the ICT industry, propelled by the promise that machine-to-machine communication brings—and it isn’t just cost savings and improved productivity: In the development sector, for instance, ubiquitous connectivity can help to address information gaps, which can be as much as four years for areas like education and child mortality.
The centre of attention at the PRF was 5G, which pundits say should be ready for commercial use by 2020. While the standards aren’t set yet, the mobile industry is aiming for it to have 1,000x the system capacity of LTE, with a latency of less than 1 millisecond and peak speeds of more than 10Gbps—30x that of 4G. Among other things, it will allow simultaneous connections with a wider range of devices, including sensor networks. 5G is also expected to be able to combine signals from multiple frequency bands, ranging from low VHF-band to high millimeter-band —rather than relying on a single band—using spectrum more flexibly depending on location, time, and application, thus enabling more stable connectivity.
The potential gains of this dynamism are not lost on Asia-Pacific. Many countries have responded with a flurry of rules and frameworks to facilitate the growth of a digital economy. For instance Laos, which recently carried out an e-transaction law, is currently drafting infrastructure sharing and data pricing regulations. A number of countries are likewise in the process of freeing up more frequency bands to accommodate more advanced mobile and wireless technologies. But more forward-looking plans are needed. The Philippines’ upcoming provision on Internet service quality, for instance, defines broadband as a 256kbps connection rate, while Indonesia is aiming for a modest 1 Mbps mobile broadband speed for half of its rural population by 2019. Faster access beyond cities is crucial especially for countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh where at lest 60% of the population live in rural areas.
But emerging economies are also making headway in digital inclusion. Mobile financial services, which allows the unbanked to maintain savings accounts, avail of small loans, and purchase insurance, has grown rapidly in South Asia. Pakistan’s six year-old Easy Paisa for instance has a 15 million user base. Bangladesh, where the doctor to patient ratio is 1:15,000, has become a trailblazer for rural ehealth with programmes like Amader Daktar. The integrated ICT-based system includes ‘doctor in a tab,’ an app that allows rural patients to consult with and receive advice and prescriptions from Dhaka-based doctors with the help of a local health worker.
The importance of getting the fundamentals right could not be clearer in countries that have stayed ahead of the curve. Singapore, which expects to pilot self-driving cars and automated homes in 2016, has a nationwide high speed, optical fibre network and 87% broadband penetration as of 2014. The island state, which topped the World Economic Forum’s global Networked Readiness Index this year, was also among the first to publish a regulatory framework for TV white space use in wireless connectivity. Meanwhile South Korea has rolled out a ‘Cloud First’ policy for its public and private sectors alongside a legal framework promoting anonymisation technologies to address the rise in big data. By 2020, some 70% of mobile data traffic is expected to go through the cloud, necessitating more robust and effective data protection regimes.
At the meeting, the OECD identified competition, consumer protection, security, privacy and openness as essential ingredients to a digital economy. But to make the IoT era happen also requires networks, systems and devices that are low-cost and low-power, with enough capacity to accommodate richer content and more connections. For emerging countries in Asia-Pacific, preparing for the future also means going back to the basics: investing in policies and infrastructure to make fast, reliable and affordable Internet access possible for everyone.