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The Future of the Internet Digital Divide

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Technologically, Internet capacity will continue to increase into the foreseeable future. The available bandwidth, storage capacity, and processing capacity will grow from the current gigabits, gigabytes, and billions of instructions per second to tera-, peta-, exa-, zeta-measured amounts. The bandwidth available with deployment of dense wavelength wide division multiplexing (DWDM) and other emerging technologies promises transmission rates approaching terabits per second and beyond for the Internet backbone. User access rates to the Internet will grow to gigabits per second with deployment of Gigabit Ethernet, followed by 10-Gigabit Ethernet and other technologies to come.

Sociologically, the Internet will be used by practically all human beings—several billion human users during the next century, a large increase from the current hundreds of millions of users. China will become the largest Internet user community in the coming decade, followed by India, which will become the second largest Internet user community toward the end of the decade. Many interesting developments are anticipated for the global Internet community when currently developing countries dominate the global Internet community, in contrast with the present-day Internet, which is dominated by the U.S. and other Western civilizations. This shift in the Internet user community will lead to greater internationalization of the Internet and will facilitate better representation of various languages and cultures.

Although there will be a fundamental change in the human user demographics, another significant development is that there will be more machines connected to the Internet than human users within the next decade. Examples of machines that will be connected to the Internet include home appliances, automobiles, and furniture. The Internet is forcing merger of computer communications, telecommunications, broadcasting, and publishing, with the Internet as the primary infrastructure. Through this merger process, the Internet will become ubiquitous like electricity. The telecommunications and broadcasting industries will continue to experience radical changes caused by the Internet revolution.

The telecommunications industry, with the telephone as its primary application, contributed to widening the economic gap between the rich and the poor. The rich, developed countries benefited through deployment of the telecommunications enormously, but the emerging countries did not benefit equally.

The Internet may follow a pattern similar to the telecommunications revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. The last decade has seen the developed countries benefit from the Internet far more than the emerging countries. Countries such as China and India can narrow this Internet digital divide by effectively exploiting the Internet in their countries. China and some countries in Asia are doubling—even tripling—the numbers of their Internet users now. India exploits the Internet to develop high-technology industries such as its proliferating software industry.

Unfortunately, there will be many emerging countries that do not benefit from the Internet revolution, including many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and this aspect of the digital divide will widen in the coming century. We need to work on narrowing the digital divide as much as possible by allowing all to exploit the Internet revolution, with elaborate global coordination and cooperation. Shall we begin such a campaign for global outreach and awareness on the Internet?

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UF1 Figure. —The Augmented Man. Torsten Froelich and Didier Stricker, Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics, Darmstadt, Germany; Claudia Soeller-Eckert, Institute for Media Technology, Mainz, Germany

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