Network: Broadband will be the key to a prosperous future

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE NEW millennium is weeks away, and this will be my last column this century. It sounds very finite, so I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on what key changes we shall expect over the next few years. Also, and probably more importantly, what key changes will not happen unless we take an active role in driving the new world exactly where we want it. The big chance to drive the new changes will be the roll out of broadband, either via ADSL, satellite Internet or cable modems.

Since the opening of the Internet to the public back in 1994, the last few years have seen a radical shift in lifestyle and an explosion of wealth creation. According to a recent survey, the Internet industry is creating 3,000 jobs per week, mostly very well paid. The arrival of broadband Internet access will surely speed up those processes and create even more prosperity.

Broadband will give us more scope to create entertaining and engaging sites. Soon beautiful, visually seductive, 3D-rendered images of your virtual body in the designer clothes of your choice will start appearing on interactive television sets, bringing more women to the growing number of interactive entertainment consumers.

The consoles for the boys will still be there, but more retail categories that require strong visual images, like beauty products, home interior decoration and fashion, will change the way women use the online environment. New jobs are going to be available for people who are visually sensitive, experts in the above areas and familiar with what women consumers really want. Thus it is quite likely that a significant proportion of broadband creators will be women. That shift has already been happening over the last few years, but broadband and its visual strength will speed the gender shift considerably.

It appears that a lot of broadband applications will centre on health and medical advice. When two-way video conferencing becomes available on television screens at the price of a local call, we may shortly see a new wave of virtual GPs. That could improve the current NHS situation where overcrowded waiting rooms prompt many of us to contain our ailments with aspirin and AlkaSetzer.

The second area that will see significant changes in response to broadband will be the next wave of cross-offices teamwork. OK, e-mail has taken us a lot further than the telephone, and many projects are already driven by groups that are strictly virtual. But the studies I have seen of "always on" video conferencing walls in the office, where for the whole day you can have a view of your co-workers in Glasgow when you are sitting in Aberdeen, indicate that the bonding is much stronger and teamwork closer. It allows more emotional contact with people who are not physically present. "Always on" video conferencing may open new and interesting ways of putting together virtual teams on projects that normally would require close physical proximity.

The possible downside here is the cost which may disadvantage smaller companies. We musn't allow that to happen, as most of the jobs created in the industry come from small to medium-sized companies, as their growth is driving the digital economy.

An advantage of broadband is that the price will be the same in cities as in rural, more remote areas. The cost of access will be equal regardless of location.

That is likely to lead to a huge new push for home-based work. Video- conferencing and the creation of virtual, 3D environments will persuade future professionals to move to out-of-town locations. The freedom to escape from daily commuting misadventures will be so tempting that we can expect the shift to home working to accelerate from the current 4.6 per cent to 15-20 per cent of the employed population living in the non- metropolitan areas.

Finally, the development of broadband applications will create a great opportunity for those in their final years of university. The technology that is used to create today's websites will be obsolete in a few months, and many of us who have been working in narrow band will find it hard to adopt to the new technologies and the broadband language. I suspect the new interactive advertising, shopping and information services will be dreamt up by the people who are not on anybody's payroll yet.

We should feel confident enough that the next loop of technological advances will bring new benefits, create stacks of new, fun and interesting jobs, mostly with small to medium-size companies, allowing us to thrive and create the new media space. Some of us will chose the home office, many will work with virtual colleagues.

But we must be smart enough to make sure that we are not just focusing on the top 30 per cent of the population, while the bottom 30 per cent is falling behind the tech curve. We are the lucky generation that has been handed the digital revolution to look after. Let's make sure that we are up to this responsibility by wisely ensuring that those who have not been as lucky get the chance to acquire the skills and join in the fun.

Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year.