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The Trouble With Predictions: The “Negroponte Flip” 20 Years Later

By Joseph Pelton

  • The Trouble With Predictions: The “Negroponte Flip” 20 Years Later

As a futurist, I have respected the fact that the future is not only not what it used to be, but that specific predictions as to dates and market size can certainly come back to bite you. Accordingly, I have often tried to use what I call the Pelton Laws of Prediction:

  • “Never make a five-year prediction—because new and unanticipated technology can and probably will ruin your prognosis.”
  • “Never make a 10-year prediction—because regulatory processes will slow innovations in ways that you had not anticipated.”
  • “Always make a 25- to 50-year prediction—because no one will be around to check up on your forecasts.”

In 1991, Nicholas Negroponte came forth with a widely read and often accepted concept that became known as the “Negroponte Flip.” This was a technologically rigid and deterministic forecast that suggested that the overwhelming majority of all of the “wired telephone” communications would essentially shift to “wireless” or cellular voice services to support mobile services. He further predicted that this would happen by the rather precise date of 2010. He also suggested that the great bulk of all of the “wireless broadcasts” of the day, namely television and radio, would shift to fiber optic and coaxial cable transmission to the home. The main technical premise of Negroponte’s forecast was that the rising volume of television and Internet services was simply too large to be sustained via wireless systems. In short, the “Negroponte Flip” prediction was premised on the idea that we would run out of available spectrum to support broadband wireless communications.

The problem with technology-driven predictions (as opposed to market-driven predictions) is that scientists, engineers, and/or regulators often come up with new solutions to problems such as spectrum shortage. In 1993, I wrote an article for TelecommunicationsMagazine while I was still director of the Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder. I wrote a dissenting prediction that suggested we would see a “Merge” rather than a tsunami-like “Flip.” I suggested that while a good deal of the predicted shift would take place, there would also be new broadband satellites, intensive frequency reuse terrestrial systems (such as CDMA or spread spectrum), and new allocations (or reallocations of spectrum).

This would result in a “Merge.” This is to say that there would be a powerful combination of “wireless technology” (i.e., satellites, terrestrial wireless, and even high- altitude platform systems/UAVs), which would merge within an “invisible digital cloud” with fiber and coax joining with wireless systems to provide a seamless network of transmission and processing systems. This merger of wireless and wired systems would not only provide “fixed broadband communications” to the home and office, but also increasingly provide broadband services to support mobile users.

The Pelton Merge, first and foremost, noted that patterns would differ around the world. Countries with jungles, deserts, mountains, or numerous islands would, in particular, remain more dependent on wireless systems. It also predicted that the “road warriors” and today’s increasingly mobile Generations X and Y would demand not only voice service, but also increasingly on-the-move broadband video and data services. Today, there are more than 12,000 video channels being beamed via satellite around the world. There are also services like movies and TV shows provided on demand to mobile users via 3G and soon 4G “smart” cell phones. Although fiber today is key to services to the home and office, there are myriad broadband wireless networked services around the world as well. There is a torrent of broadband Internet services to Bluetooth and BlackBerry devices using unlicensed spectra, plus a huge surge of broadband on iPhones, the Palm Pre, and other smart phones.

Today, DISH and DIRECTV satellite networks deliver more HD television channels via wireless systems than the cable multi-service providers. In the first two weeks of July 2009, Sirius and XM satellites downloaded more than one million large-scale, on-demand programs.

The sophisticated Hughes Spacenet satellites are being used today by DIRECTV to provide local television channels across the U.S. The TerreStar satellite, the Inmarsat 4 BGAN services, Thuraya, New Iridium, and Globalstar space-based networks are supporting an amazing array of 3G wireless broadband mobile services in the U.S. and around the world in tandem with increasingly broadband and higher-powered wireless terrestrial mobile networks. Surveillance satellites and UAV platforms supporting security and defense-related optical sensing and radar applications will, in coming years, migrate from gigabits per second transmission speeds to terabits per second. The “Merge” today seems quite real, even though my original predictions still have another decade to run.

The point of looking back at future predictions almost two decades later is to learn what makes forecasting difficult. In this case, new market forces (e.g., increasing demand for video and data services, new allocations of spectrum) and new technologies (e.g., broadband wireless, broadband satellites) combined to change the landscape of telecommunications in ways that were difficult, but not impossible, to foresee.

In my opinion, any purported “expert” or futurist should be required to register his or her predictions with an independent group with yearly reports on their success and failure. UC Berkeley’s Philip Tetlock,* who mapped more than 82,000 forecasts against real-world outcomes, found that the “Hedgehogs”—the photogenic and most articulate prognosticators, the ones with the one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch—were noticeably less accurate in their forecasts than the “Foxes.” These were the more obscure forecasters, less attractive and more stumbling in their media appearances, self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were doubtful of grand schemes, and modest about their predictive ability.

Here’s one more Pelton Law of Prediction: Modesty always wins in the long run.

Joseph N. Pelton is the former dean, International Space University; former director, Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program, Univ. of Colorado-Boulder; director of Strategic Policy for Intelsat; founder, Arthur C. Clarke Foundation; and director emeritus of the Space & Advanced Communications Research Institute, George Washington University.

*Eric Schurenberg, “Why the experts missed the crash,” Money Magazine, February 18, 2009

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