The Internet revolution has not reached all of us

By Larry Downes

The Washington Post : The Internet is celebrating some important milestones. Last week marked both the 40th anniversary of the first mobile connection and the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Millennials can’t even remember what life was like without it and, even for us baby boomers, the changes to everyday activities have been at once profound and subtle.

Alt Text: Illustration depicting a globe with some areas connected to the internet and others disconnected.
Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

Much memes. So web. Such wow. (Adriana Usero, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

But the information revolution is far from finished. Indeed, for many living in the developing world, and even for some Americans, the Internet still hasn’t arrived.

Given how far we have come, it may be hard to believe that the idea of a loosely connected web of computer networks, with fast-moving and fast-changing mobile users, originated decades ago with the U.S. military. It was looking to maintain reliable and redundant real-time communications with military assets under extreme and rapidly changing conditions.

Ironically, the military and first responders

have yet to achieve the connectivity goals they established 40 years ago. But consumers and businesses have unexpectedly embraced anywhere, anytime, any device computing with a vengeance. Since 2010, a combination of robust high-speed broadband networks, fashion-conscious new smartphones and tablets, and a growing universe of mobile applications — such as Angry Birds and Uber — have launched the most dramatic computing revolution yet. Nearly 8 billion mobile devices around the world are now connected to the Internet.

Reflecting on this remarkable transformation and the engine of innovation that drives it, I was reminded of my own personal “aha” moment at the dawn of the Internet age. I was at a research conference that featured dramatic predictions of the future of computing from the likes of Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. In retrospect, all they were proposing were variations of what we already had — hierarchical networks, closed systems and proprietary software. And all of them turned out to be wrong — deeply wrong.

The last presentation came from a young graduate student from the University of Illinois, who modestly demonstrated an early Internet navigation tool. The audience, senior executives at some of the world’s largest enterprises, were stunned by how a low-grade networking standard — created by the U.S. military and now maintained by volunteers — could elegantly and cheaply move any kind of information among government, university and private computers.

The student was Marc Andreessen,

and his software was the Mosaic Web browser. Within a few short years, Mosaic and its successors (including whatever you’re using to read this article) revolutionized information exchange from one computer to another across the fast-growing Internet, displaying whatever data those systems chose to make available through text, links, graphics and, soon enough, audio and video.

Watching Andreessen’s demo, the future of computing suddenly shifted course. The Internet — with absolutely no competitive advantage over the private standards or even an intention by its developers to become a commercial network in the first place — was about to swallow everything, simply because there was no reason not to use it. Over the past 25 years, the Internet has steadily absorbed every network and every technology imaginable — or, more to the point, unimaginable. Once-separate radio, TV, voice and data all travel over the same systems, a virtual Postal Service now delivering a sextillion bytes a year.

Thanks in part to official U.S. policy to leave the Internet “unfettered by federal or state regulation,” private investors have poured over $1.4 trillion into building and rebuilding the digital infrastructure. They are poised to do even more in the coming years, increasing both wired and wireless speeds from the megabits to the gigabits per second. And as the cost of computing and communicating continues to fall along with the size and power requirements of connectivity, trillions more devices will begin speaking the Internet’s lingua franca in the “Internet of Things.”

But the revolution is far from complete.

A shrinking but significant subset of Americans still aren’t connected, and even more in the rest of the world. Both public and private efforts to close the gap have made solid progress. The Federal Communications Commission, for example, has revamped its Lifeline program to subsidize broadband access for the poorest Americans. Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has now signed up more than 3 million subscribers, and AT&T recently announced its own $10 per month service. For increasingly popular mobile access, carriers and content providers including Facebook offer “zero rated” service, which provide unlimited access to the Internet’s most popular content.

For the remaining digital holdouts, however, availability and cost are no longer the main obstacles. While the rest of us find ourselves unable to look away from our screens even for a few minutes, the unconnected — primarily older, rural, or less educated — consistently tell researchers that their principal reason not to go online is that there’s nothing there for them. Given the Web’s growing importance for education, health care and jobs, non-adopters are wrong about relevance. So the focus now needs to be on persuading them to join us.

And join us they must.

The Internet’s gravity is such that the more users who join the network, the faster each added connection increases its value, exhibiting what economists call network effects. That means the communities absent from the Internet’s global village are as valuable to us as we are to them, if not more.

In retrospect, what I saw in Andreessen’s demonstration was a pinhole peek at a future that continues to arrive, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. But for some, it hasn’t arrived at all.  Until every demographic joins the network, the true potential of these impressive anniversaries will go unrealized.

Downes is co-author with Paul Nunes of “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014). He is a project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.

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