The New Internet

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2005

The Transition to a Ubiquitous Internet Society

by Jack Turner

Heading home, your new broadband cell phone connects to a number of your appliances. It ensures your bath will be run by the time you get home, and tells the fridge to have those beers cooled to just above freezing. The fridge, in a panic over there being less than a glassful of milk for breakfast, orders a bottle from the online supermarket, and next contacts your wife, who calls to say you forgot the milk again and "will never change." Then comes a voice message giving you the quickest route home, downloaded from the network and based on weather and traffic conditions. This may all sound like it's straight out of a science fiction movie, but what is being called the "new Internet" is right around the corner, and Japan, as usual, is leading the way.

Five years ago Japan lagged behind in creating an information society but today it is perhaps the closest to achieving a "ubiquitous society." The first e-Japan policy was launched in 2001 by Prime Minister Mori, who many would probably remember for his political gaffes rather than for his prowess in IT policy. The government first adopted a Basic IT Law and established the IT Strategic Headquarters. Soon after, it introduced the e-Japan Priority Policy Program, which had the lofty goal of creating an Internet society in which all information is digitized and universally available via a low-cost and convenient open network. The goal was to propel Japan to the forefront of IT within five years.

The years 2000-2001 also saw the birth of fixed-line broadband Internet in Japan, with established telcos such as NTT, and also IT ventures, including Softbank and eAccess, beginning to offer ADSL services. Subscriber numbers rocketed, and not only is Japan's broadband penetration rate one of the highest in the world today, but these companies are now able to offer an incredible 100mps to the home.

Another e-Japan strategy, an e-Japan Acceleration Package, and three more Priority Policy Programs later, and an IT society has evolved in Japan that could not have even been imagined five years ago. Leading the way is Yahoo! Japan, the giant Internet portal site, which was only established in 1996, and is now valued at over USD$31 billion. Its views now top 300 million a month, which, on a daily rate, is more than double the number of readers of Japan's four major newspapers.

Despite having come this far, Japan is not sitting on its hands. The current objectives are to "continue to be the world's most advanced IT nation in 2006 and beyond," and to "realize a vigorous, safe, and convenient society through the use of IT," according to the Internet Policy Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. These specific 2006-2010 objectives are loosely packaged into the ubiquitous society, or u-Japan concept.

Today's Internet consists of broadband connections mainly for PCs. However, under u-Japan, the new Internet will consist of networks of thousands or millions of microchips, in home electronic appliances as well as PCs and cell phones, connected to the network, all communicating with one another. The ubiquitous society connects everyone and everything, where anyone, anytime and anywhere can benefit from the use of terminals and networks without even being aware of the existence of the network. The necessary steps to progress from e- to u- are to "unplug" conventional devices by making them wireless and portable, and to "plug" other appliances onto the network by inserting connection devices.

This wireless revolution is apparent in Japan: just witness the popularity of the massive Networld + Interop Tokyo 2005, a showcase of Internet technologies for a ubiquitous society attended by over 152,000 visitors in just three days. Of the technologies that gained the most attention at Interop Tokyo, at least three are going to play a major part in the new Internet in u-Japan: RFID, VoIP, and IPv6.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a technology that uses devices attached to objects for transmitting data to a receiver. These devices can be pieces of hardware as large as a paperback book for attachment to ocean containers, or as small as a tiny device inserted into a package label. The advantages of RFID are the ability to change the stored data as processing occurs, the ability for non-line-of-sight transfer of data, and durability in harsh physical environments -- like paddocks. RFID is increasingly used in combating BSE in beef. By attaching a small RFID device to every cow, a farmer can gather and store real-time information on the location of each animal in the paddock. The farmer can track its interactions with other cows, is alerted if an animal gets lost or falls down a hole, and can instantly detect any change in body temperature or behavior, thus enabling him to prevent the spread of infections or abnormalities.

Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is the current holy grail of communications technology. VoIP technology allows telephone calls to be made over an Internet connection, rather than using the regular (or analog) phone line. This removes the need for the infrastructure of conventional telephone systems such as the PBX and switching systems. It is estimated that VoIP telephone networks can save up to 90 percent of the maintenance costs of conventional phone systems. A popularized version of VoIP technology is the Skype system, licensed in Japan by Livedoor, which targets regular PC users and allows them to call anywhere in the world from computer-to-computer for free. It has already attracted over 154 million free downloads, and is being used by both individuals and companies around the world. The impact of Skype on the telecommunications industry has been described by one analyst as "like a meteor heading toward earth."

This is the same IP network that will facilitate communication between the millions of devices yet to connect and lead to the new ubiquitous network society. Many solutions are currently being developed to allow different devices to work properly over the same connection. Examples are "triple play" solutions, such as those designed by Allied Telesis to aid simultaneous VoIP, web browsing and video applications over the same network connection, ensuring each is allocated the right resources and runs smoothly.

The technology platform that will enable this network is called Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6). The current Internet protocol (version 4) was originally developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the United States over 30 years ago, but IPv6 has a number of advantages. The difference is often compared to a new set of road rules, as it allows smoother, faster, and safer traffic flow, and also allows more cars (current devices) and different vehicles (new devices) on the road.

IPv6 is now supported in almost every major operating system and by most hardware manufacturers in Japan. Many "IPv6Ready" commercial products, including network cameras, printers, routers, and IP phones, are already on the market. NTT and KDDI provide IPv6-enabled services, including an IPv6 videophone service by NTT East. One of the benefits of IPv6 is multicast broadcast. Multicast supports a single broadcaster, sending to multiple viewers, with the difference being that viewers can select any stream whenever they choose. This opens up an array of new business opportunities in areas such as Internet broadcast. Softbank is already trialing this technology and implementing a three-phased IPv6 roadmap, whose second phase involves multicast video-delivery service using IPv6 as well as communication and P2P applications. Softbank currently offers live coverage of Hawks baseball games over Yahoo Hikari optical fiber connections, which give the viewer an animated scoreboard, player in-formation, the ability to chat with other viewers, and a choice of 30 different camera angles.

IPv6 also works with new versions of Mobile IP, another key component of the new Internet because it allows devices to "move about" on the network. Say, for example, you are participating in a video conference call on your PDA while riding the train to work. As the train moves, it will most likely pass from one network segment to another. During the transition your device should maintain the feed to the conference call, without any loss of connection. Mobile IP and IPv6 will combine to provide an enabling platform for such applications.

Although IPv6 is still viewed as a "future" technology because the limits of IPv4 have not yet been reached, the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications has announced that "the spread of the IPv6 Internet [the new Internet] is expected to push the value of the information and communications technology (ICT) market from 50 trillion yen in 2001 to 121 trillion yen in 2010 due to major growth especially in the devices and content markets."

However, the underlying thread joining all such devices, applications, and technologies on the new Internet is bandwidth. And the Japanese government is offering companies a golden opportunity to take a lead in the transition from e- to u-Japan. The government, which regulates bandwidth usage, is inviting bids for cellular phone licenses, as opposed to their sale or auction in other countries. The allocated Internet spectrum not only provides a platform to launch a new cellular business, but also gives successful applicants the opportunity to use this bandwidth to connect any other devices and services they choose.

The connection of so many of the devices in our everyday lives onto the same network opens up an array of new industries and opportunities.

One company eagerly anticipating these opportunities is Ubiquitous Business Technology Inc., or Ubit. Formed in late 1999 in Tokyo, Ubit developed a cell-phone creation and management system called MS2. Site management and updating is vital for boosting membership or revenue through increasing hits or offering a wider range of topics. MS2 is a system for creating and managing such sites. As Ubit's sites can be updated just through blogging, the user requires no knowledge of programming or systems. Users can also check the number of hits or downloads and manage their sites accordingly. The company has also created over 150 sites on overseas networks such as the European carrier Orange, whose Ubit-originated sites include Star Wars, UEFA, Euro 2004, and the Tour de France.

This highlights firstly the potential of the new blogging technology, but also shows that some Japanese companies are taking the initiative in overseas markets. However, the reverse is also happening in Japan.

Naviblog, a small company Englishman Mandali Khalesi formed in Hiroo, in central Tokyo, introduces new concepts in local information search. Khalesi smelled an opportunity in the fact that despite the quantum growth in information on the Internet, finding what we seek can still be a challenge. The Naviblog technology is a local information search that utilizes mobile-blogging. Users blog location-specific information on a certain topic, for example, a restaurant, into the database. Other users can search for this and similar blogs on that restaurant and others in the vicinity without all the hassle that accompanies current search technologies. The brilliance of Naviblog is that the cell phone uses GPS to find the user's position, and with one click brings up a local map. With just one more click, the user can find specific information on, for example, the restaurant in question. This is 400 percent fewer clicks than conventional technologies require and much more user-friendly.

Khalesi is taking early advantage of the fact that GPS technology will be mandatory in cell phones in Japan as of April 2007. This is already the case in the US and the EU, where laws mandate mobile phones notify their positions during emergency calls to assist in locating victims and accident sites. However, this also creates many more opportunities for GPS-based technologies and applications, such as Naviblog.

However, many are wary of having on the same network information from their various devices, including their location. Security is now the issue of greatest concern to the telecommunications industry -- which is why the new Personal Information Protection Law enacted earlier this year created such a fuss.

There is even growing concern over the global Internet giant Google, as it gains more information about users in support of its ever-more popular services. Nobody is suggesting that Google would misuse this information, but it is a prime target for hackers, which highlights issues of data maintenance on the new Internet.

The issue of data maintenance on the new Internet is illustrated by Japan's new Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system, which wirelessly charges cars such that they can go through tollgates without stopping. The system's benefits include elimination of congestion at gates, increased convenience for drivers, and reduction of air and noise pollution. However, the average speed of a car can be calculated by dividing the distance between entry and exit tollgates by the time traveled, although traffic authorities are forbidden from collecting data or using this information to issue speeding tickets...

Which for the time being will spare you from arriving home and having your car ask you how you should pay for the tickets you had accumulated on the way! JI

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