What Makes the Network Sustainable? -- The Sustainable Network

by Sarah Sorensen
The Sustainable Network book cover

This excerpt is from The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet. This book demonstrates how we can tackle challenges, ranging from energy conservation to economic and social innovation, using the global network of which the public Internet is just one piece. To help solve a myriad of problems today, author Sarah Sorensen points out that the best tool for enacting change already exists, lying literally at our fingertips. The Sustainable Network demystifies the power of the network, and issues a strong call to action.

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Describing the network as something that connects computing devices is akin to calling the Rosetta Stone a rock with words on it.

ahima Abdul Majeed lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. She needed a loan of $25 to expand her tailor shop. She didn't get the money from her local bank; instead, she received the money from someone halfway around the world who saw and funded her request on Kiva.org, a microlending site. Working with a local financial company that handled all the local logistics and serviced the loan, Rahima was able to use that money to buy an electronic sewing machine and increase the money she earns to help support her family. She also repaid the loan within its specifed eight-month term, so that money can potentially be used to support the lifelong ambitions of another entrepreneur.1

Rahima is just one of the tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who have received a much-needed loan via Kiva.org to start or expand their businesses. Kiva's mission, to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty,2 is an amazing example of the sustainable network's ability to reach out across all corners of the globe to establish connections and relationships that create change. It's something our tactile world simply could not have accomplished at this scale.

It is this pervasiveness that makes today's network one of the most powerful platforms we have. Its ability to spread out and infltrate parts of the world that have typically been impervious to new technologies is simply uncanny. The network's ability to deliver equitable access to information and opportunity on a scale never before possible accounts for its rapid rise in adoption, especially over the past decade. Its ubiquity represents an unprecedented opportunity to reach, connect, involve, and impact everyone and everything.

If that last sentence seems a little outrageous to you, perhaps a little too politically correct or just pure starry-eyed optimism, you might consider that the network has already done it, and has done it all in a relatively short amount of time. While we have concerned ourselves over the past few years with the war in Iraq, or the rise and fall of our leaders, or the stock market crash and the subprime mortgage crisis, the network has been reaching out and achieving astronomical growth rates. New technology breakthroughs and network architectural evolutions have taken place, and the industry has found ways to extend broadband's reach and expand the offerings we all enjoy as users. So, the sustainable network isn't just about to happen. It just is.

After all, it was just 40 years ago, in 1969, when Leonard Kleinrock - the Christopher Columbus of the Internet and a computer science professor at the University of California in Los Angeles - and a group of graduate students connected to a computer at Stanford University and tried to send it some data. Theirs was the frst real-world attempt to make the concept of Arpanet - the idea to connect computers over phone lines led by the U.S. Department of Defense's Advance Research Project Agency (ARPA) - a reality. They only got as far as "LOG" in their attempt to type LOGIN before it crashed, but there was no turning back.3

After a lot of work by luminaries such as Vinton Gray Cerf and Robert E. Kahn, and many innovations later, the frst public demonstration of Arpanet was successfully conducted in 1972 among 40 machines. In 1970, Douglas Engelbart received a patent for a "computer mouse" (it would be years later when the inventor learned that it had been licensed to a little company called Apple for "something like $40,000").4 Being of British heritage, I am pleased to say that Queen Elizabeth went online and successfully sent the frst royal email message in 1976.

By 1981, Arpanet had 213 hosts, with a new host added every 20 days. The following year, the term "Internet" was frst used to describe these interconnections among hosts; by 1990, the Internet was the de facto name for this network, particularly after Arpanet was decommissioned.

In 1990, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee implemented the frst HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) connection, which is the foundational protocol that defnes how to retrieve interlinked resources, leading to the establishment of the World Wide Web (www). In 1991, the Internet became much more friendly for people like you and me, with the introduction of a "point-and-click" way of traversing the Internet (Gopher) and the frst graphical browser (Mosaic) for the Web.

By 1995, the Internet was entirely in commercial hands, with 6.5 million hosts and 100,000 "www" sites. In 1996, Microsoft offcially entered the Internet market with its introduction of its MSN browser, designed to take on the browser introduced earlier by Netscape Communications; at that time, there were 40 million people connected to the Internet. By 1998, that number was at 70 million.

Just 10 years later, in 2008, there were almost 1.5 billion Internet users in the world (www.internetworldstat.com; August 13, 2008). You do the numbers here - from 70 million to 1.5 billion in 10 years. That, I suggest, is a staggering adoption rate literally unknown to mankind. The signifcance of these 10 years is that it's indicative of the accelerating rate of adoption and change that we can expect to see continue as the world becomes even more connected.

While 1.5 billion might seem a potentially staggering number, all indicators are that the numbers will only continue to grow (see Figure 4-1). According to the World Almanac and Book of Facts 2008, between November and December 2007, 5.8 million new users joined the Internet; that translates to 193,333 per day, 8,055 per hour, 134 per minute, and roughly 2 people per second! Looking ahead, the total number of Internet users is expected to surpass the 2 billion mark by 2015 and the 3 billion mark by 2040, but it could be even sooner.5 Perhaps more telling is that the growth of Internet usage in emerging, less developed countries is just as strong. In fact, there are estimates that the number of Internet users in the top 10 emerging markets surpassed the number of Internet users in the top 10 developed markets in 2008.6

What Makes the Network Sustainable? 23

We have already surpassed previous predictions that had the number of Internet users hitting 1.5 billion in 2011. In its report titled "Worldwide Online Population Forecast, 2006 to 2011," Jupiter Research anticipated "that a 38% increase in the number of people with online access will mean that, by 2011, 22% of the Earth's population will surf the Internet regularly" (www.clickz.com/3626274).

Broadband penetration, which is the physical high-speed network connection often required to support a satisfactory network experience, is also growing at a heady worldwide clip. Informa Telecoms & Media estimates that by 2011, there will be more than 1 billion broadband subscribers worldwide.7 In 2012, 17 countries are predicted to have broadband penetration rates of 60%, up from 5 countries in 2007. Depending on market conditions, some countries could have a broadband penetration ceiling of 80% or greater.8 Currently, the country with the highest penetration is South Korea, at 97%,9 demonstrating the sheer range and potential of the network's reach into the homes and hands of people in all parts of the world. I don't have the numbers, but I suspect that's a higher penetration than in Silicon Valley itself.

What's caused this expansion? Some of these remarkable numbers are due in part to the fact that the network is not restricted to a singular device type; it's not constrained to just computers, as it was when Kleinrock ran his experiment. Rather, the past 10 years have been witness to a network that supports all types of devices that attach to a computer or have some type of computing power. While there are many varying estimates, the global number of Internet-connected devices is in the billions today; some estimate it's at 15 billion, with growth projections going into the trillions, potentially reaching 10 trillion over the next 15 years.10

Ten trillion devices does seem rather large, but consider that there are currently 4 billion mobile devices,11 with forecasts up to 6 billion mobile subscribers by 2013,12 and extend those numbers to the great range of devices we could be talking about - from phones and computers to TVs and refrigerators, traffc lights and cars, watches and, of course, the ever-present target, your wallet - it's easy to see how the numbers can get into the trillions.

There's another dimension to this perfect storm. These devices have become both increasingly powerful and very affordable, helping to ensure access to the network for an ever-swelling portion of the world's population. Perhaps you noticed it yourself during these past 10 years? Take the cell phone you had in the late 1990s. It's probably been replaced several times since, incrementally getting more computing power and functionality, until your present model. Now, you may have a smartphone that connects to the network and is more powerful than the full-blown computer or laptop you had just a decade ago.

In the days of the frst computers, there were stories of entire rooms required to house the computer equipment to support a single application. Over time, we have seen processing power and memory capacity evolve, so that today, you can hold all you need in the palm of your hand. For example, when IBM invented the disk drive, the device used to store digital information, the prototype was approximately the size of a Mini Cooper and capable of storing the equivalent of two songs; today, an Apple iPod is about the size of a credit card and can hold up to 30,000 songs.13

The versatility of our new computing devices has also gone way up. For example, a decade ago, all you could do with your phone was make a call. Now, of course, you can take photos and videos, send and receive text messages, send and receive email messages, receive live news feeds, surf the Internet, and so much more. Smartphones are getting us ever closer to the reality of carrying our personal computers in our pockets. Palm's Pré, Apple's iPhone, and Google's G2, to name only a few, are no longer just the proven tools of the business road warrior. Now, Mom and Dad and their high-school offspring carry them, too. One million units of the iPhone 3G sold in the frst three days it was available; by the end of 2008, Apple had sold more than 17 million,14 with plans to make 40 million more phones from August 2008 to August 2009.15

Another factor in the soaring network adoption rates is the fact that as the technologies have matured, these devices have become less expensive to produce, and subsequently, are within the means of a larger consumer population. It wasn't too long ago that your computer had just a half a gigabyte of memory, and upgrades to get more cost hundreds of dollars; now, you can get 500 GB of memory standard. Web-enabled phones used to be hundreds of dollars, but now you can often get them for free from your mobile network provider or, at most, for a nominal price. On and on, devices that are network-enabled cost less, do more, and shrink in size at a rate that mimics the speed of their adoption.

This has all made it possible for the network to extend to segments of the population and emerging countries that might otherwise be left out because disposable income is extremely limited and a personal computer is beyond the average citizen's means, or where access is unsupported because there is no physical infrastructure (phone cables). The smaller, cheaper, more powerful devices enable the network to expand to segments of the world's population that might otherwise be left out. Take a country such as India. There are 50 million middle-income families, but only 8 million homes with a PC. So, more than 30 million Indian consumers travel to cyber-cafés to access the network on a regular basis.16 The mobile phone, however, offers a much more convenient and affordable alternative to the traditional computer. For about $10 a month, which seems to be the threshold price that Indian consumers can or are willing to pay per month for connectivity, they can have a mobile phone and all the possibilities that go along with having access to the network. This probably explains why India has been adding approximately 15 million new subscribers a month.17 Soon they submit to temptation and pay a small fee to subscribe to SMS (Short Message Service) feeds, and it suddenly becomes the primary source of news for millions of subscribers in India.18

Or take China, which represents the world's largest mobile market. In November 2008, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology placed the number of Chinese mobile subscribers at 633 million; that number represents less than half the population of China, but more mobile users than almost all of Europe's population,19 and China is adding roughly 7.8 million mobile subscribers a month.20 The typical investment of $10 a month represents 7% (or more) of the average Chinese user's monthly salary,21 which consumers seem willing to pay as they adopt the technology as their primary communications tool for both voice and data.22 Of particular note is that as the "base-ofthe-pyramid" families generate more income, ICT23 spending increases eightfold, while spending on food and housing rises only slightly.24 I guess the network truly has become an essential.

The ICT industry refers to the full range of devices and applications that play a role in digital communication, ranging from monitors and cell phones to PCs and storage devices. This also includes all the different applications that enable the sharing or use of information, from email and online services to spreadsheets and video games, as well as the hardware and software needed to operate the networks that transmit the information, from the smallest home office to the largest global networks.

Another example can be found among consumers in the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia.25 Most use their phones to surf the Internet because other alternatives, such as high-speed cable, DSL, or regular phone lines are simply unavailable or too costly, even between the larger islands.

Then there's Brazil. Only 17.7% of the more than 192 million Brazilians have access to the Internet, but Brazil represents the ffth largest mobile market in the world, with approximately 100,000 million mobile subscribers in 2007.26 It seems logical that for this market, Internet services will increasingly be delivered via the mobile phone networks. This theory is backed by the overall growth in mobile data traffc reported by the country's service providers and analyst predictions that Brazil's telecom market will increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.26% from 2007–2012.27 This is in relation to a 6% CAGR for the worldwide telecom/datacom equipment market during the same timeframe.28

There are many more examples of consumers using alternative devices, such as net-books (which are cheaper than computers and are getting comparable in processing power), to be connected to the network all the time. As all computing devices become smaller, more powerful, and more affordable, the network access adoption rate will continue to grow and literally penetrate the circumference of the globe. It is becoming easier and easier to conceive of a world where it is possible to get a computing device into the hands of every single person and subsequently give them access to the network and the wealth of resources and opportunity that go with it. A decade ago, it was a pipe dream. Today, you can readily see how that could be implemented. A decade from now, we might say, "What took so long?"

I noted that the amazing thing about the network's reach and astounding adoption rate is that it has happened in a relatively short amount of time. To ground it a little, compare the network's adoption numbers with the adoption of television sets - another highly popular and successful technology, which was invented in the late 1920s. As of 2003, there were approximately 1.4 billion TVs in the world, with China (400 million), the U.S. (219 million) and Japan (86.5 million) leading the way.29 It took the television industry 75 years to get 1.4 billion devices into the hands of consumers; in a little less than a quarter of that amount of time, consumers have purchased almost three times as many Internet-connected devices by all conservative accounts.

These numbers speak volumes on the ubiquity of the network and its ability to reach and connect large swaths of the population. As much as I would like to think this is a theory made up from my insightful analysis, it's not; it's simple arithmetic. In 1998, there were approximately 70 million network users. Today, there are more than 1.6 billion users and growing. It's been organic growth, simply feeding itself. Once introduced, the network has had the ability to take off quickly, making it a transformative platform easily embedded in everyone's daily work and personal life.

And in its wake, the network removes physical and geographical barriers and facilitates connections to people and resources that would otherwise be cumbersome or resource-intensive to maintain. In the past decade, it has truly leveled the playing feld for the world's population. A farmer in India can be as wired as a VP in Silicon Valley. Again, this isn't theory; it's fact. The cost and availability of devices, plus the growth of the network and its services, has made the farmer and the VP equal in terms of access. It's this all-pervading access and the different relationships that all these connections represent that make the network one of our greatest tools for sustainable change, development, and action.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, buy a copy of The Sustainable Network.