Lesson of a Pandemic for a Connected World

Written by Dr. Andrew Lippman, Associate Director of the MIT Media Lab and head of the Viral Communications research group, and Dr. Hossein Moiin, former CTO of Nokia, and now Strategic Executive Advisor at Coriant

In the last few decades we have witnessed the birth of a new world as mobile and internet technologies transformed business and reshaped everyday life. Today, in the shadow of the global novel coronavirus pandemic, we are starkly reminded that information is at the heart of our newly formed society; only information can contain the virus. Information that must flow securely, respect the privacy of the communicating agents, and be accessible from anywhere and by anyone.  

This flow of information requires policies similar to the National Defense and Highway act of 1956. In the 1950s the US federal government recognized that roads provide both defense and growth, and we created physical mobility on a scale that transformed the nation. In the 1970s we realized that a resilient, wired, national communications infrastructure would serve us through digital transformation of research, life, and work. Interstate highways and the internet were paradigm shifts. The next social shift is upon us. The internet is not just about streaming movies and social media. It is about security, wellbeing, learning, and the future. A paradigm shift in the access and flow of information is a prerequisite to dealing with both our immediate problems and the ultimate re-alignment of society around an information-based new world. Here, we outline the needs and propose a way forward.

The most critical component of this realignment is broadband wireless internet access that must be granted to all citizens. This national priority project is the fundamental layer upon which the new society will be built. Consider three domains— education, telehealth, and location services—as examples that demonstrate the importance of this layer. 

When we send kids of all ages home to learn, it is essential that they have the means (device and access) to do so. If we close the schools and tell our youth to learn online when they can’t get online, we are telling them not to learn at all; education isn’t diverted, it’s aborted. As a nation we cannot afford that. All 50 state constitutions require access to public education; when that can’t be provided by buses it has to be provided by electrons. Innovations in online learning are wasted if some 18% of kids are offline.

We now know that telehealth works. Instead of lining up for hours at a critical care facility, we accept that remote health analysis relieves the medical system of an unbearable burden. Telehealth has become the inevitable entry point to the healthcare system for many during this crisis, but it can be an option for all as we return to normal. Even if we can’t equip each home, we can build kiosks in pharmacies and allow online doctors to be the entry point for detecting and treating both viruses and those who most need care for any reason. This combination of sensing, communications, and human intervention works as well during everyday life as during a pandemic. It is an efficiency the medical world sorely needs.

We are learning that society itself is protected by threat warnings. Contact tracing can reveal the “Typhoid Mary’s” and pinpoint flash points for threats. It need not be invasive nor specific to this disease. MIT’s Safe Paths project shines a light on how this can work: An infected person exposes an anonymous map of their last two weeks. Others can see if theirs intersects with it. Germany, Australia, Israel and other countries are already out of the gate with variations on this theme. We need to do this at scale. Our emerging Internet of Things is flooding us with environmental and personal sensors; we need to extend that past the commercial sphere and into the health and security of the nation. Covid-19 provides us with the motivation to do that for all, not just those who can afford an Apple watch.

Here is a path forward. Step one is to recognize that there are some things that cannot be done by entrepreneurs alone. Like the atom bomb, our roads, putting a man on the moon, and designing the internet in the first place, there are some things that require participation by both the government and the private sector. Gruber and Johnson’s recent book, Jumpstarting America, is one roadmap. 

Step two is to understand that universal wireless connectivity is the critical means by which we need to provide access. We need a national 5G network for both communications and device control that reaches everywhere, to every square inch of the country (not just the most profitable parts) and has sufficient capacity to transform lives. Today, wireless is more than a convenience, it is a necessity. America does not stand still, it vibrates and perambulates. Living rooms matter but they pale in contrast to what happens on-the-fly. We need the government to open desirable spectrum that can provide both coverage and capacity. 

Step three is to recognize that the next generation of wireless technology cannot be owned by one company in a foreign and sometimes hostile country. Innovation thrives on competition and collaboration; a monopoly benefits no one but the monopolist and leaves innovation in the dust. At this moment, the keys to the next generation of wireless are being led by Huawei. While they have dedicated the resources to take this lead, it is time to make sure that they do not become the monopoly in this field. No one company should be the sole source for such a critical technology. 

We need to create a government/private partnership that protects this space for innovation and creates the right ecosystem by pro-competition policies. The incentive is support, the target is a connected nation. We are not arguing for subsidies. That is business as usual. We argue for revitalization, a supported focus that galvanizes research and development and capitalizes on what we do best. We know how to start—the internet as it is, radio magic that maps theory into data, and individually owned devices that protect our health and extend our lives. Let’s jumpstart a new infrastructure for industry, health, learning, and the people.

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