5 Trends to Watch in Computer Networking for 2017 (and Beyond)

Because networks operate behind the scenes in our homes and businesses, we usually don’t think about them unless something goes wrong. Yet computer network technology is continuing to develop in new and interesting ways. Some key developments that have transpired over the past several years include:

  • the growing popularity of cloud computing and cloud storage. Instead of buying physical copies of movie, music and game media, consumers increasingly buy digital licenses and download (or stream) their content over the Internet.
  • improvements to mobile (cellular) network infrastructure – both deployments of 4G and also enhancements to older 3G networks - that have enabled people in developed areas who can afford it to use their smartphones as mobile televisions and video broadcasting systems.
  • along with that, a underlying need of some people to stay connected at all times, whether via a home network, at the workplace, via public Wi-Fi hotspots or smartphones.
  • the difficulty faced by service providers (including Google) in expanding residential fiber cable Internet service due to installation costs and increasingly competition from other broadband providers.

Here are five of the most important areas and trends to watch in the year ahead.

01
of 05

How Many IoT Gadgets Will You Buy?

Internet of Things and Industry 4.0
Internet of Things and Industry 4.0. Getty Images

The networking industry likes to make and sell gadgets. Consumers like to buy gadgets… as long as they seem useful and the price is right. In 2017, an array of new devices targeted at the Internet of Things (IoT) market will undoubtedly compete for our attention. Categories of products that will be especially interesting to watch include:

  • Wearables of all kinds: Will there be a follow-on to the Apple Watch Series 2, or a new product from a competitor, that takes the wrist device market by storm? And what about glasses?
  • Smart kitchens: If all of our kitchen appliances could talk to each other, would they have anything interesting to say?
  • Smarter bulbs (Wi-Fi or Bluetooth enabled lighting systems): Expect additional improvements in bulb quality, programming options and ease of integration.
  • Public (social) applications: Besides equipment in our homes, IoT can have applications in stores, restaurants, and municipal locations.

Will your answer be zero? Skeptics claim that few IoT products will enjoy success in the mainstream market expecting that their practical uses are limited. Some fear the privacy risks that accompany IoT. With inside access to a person's home and their health or other personal data, these devices provide an attractive target for online attackers.

Digital fatigue also threatens to dampen interest in IoT. With only so many hours in the day, and people already overwhelmed by the number of amount of data and interfaces they must deal with to keep their existing gear running, new IoT devices face an uphill battle for time and attention.

02
of 05

Get Ready for Even More Hype over 5G

Mobile World Congress 2016
Mobile World Congress 2016. David Ramos / Getty Images

Even while 4G LTE mobile networks don't reach many parts of the world (and won't for years), the telecommunications industry has been hard at work developing the next-generation “5G” cellular communication technology.

5G is intended to boost the speeds of mobile connections dramatically. Exactly how fast consumers should expect these connections to go, and when can they buy 5G devices? These questions will not be answered definitively during 2017 as the industry technical standards need to gel first. Most predict this will happen in 2018 at the earliest.

However, just like what happened years ago when 4G was initially being developed, companies aren’t waiting and won’t be shy about advertising their 5G efforts. Prototype versions of some elements of what might someday become part of standard 5G networks will continue to be tested in labs. While reports from these tests will tout maximum data rates of many gigabits per second (Gbps), consumers should be just as interested in the promise of improved signal coverage with 5G.

Some vendors will undoubtedly start to retrofit this tech into their 4G installations: Look for “4.5G” and “pre-5G” products (and the confusing marketing claims that go along with such vaguely defined labels) to appear on the scene sooner rather than later.

03
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The Pace of IPv6 Rollout Continues to Accelerate

Google IPv6 Adoption (2016)
Google IPv6 Adoption (2016). google.com

IPv6 will one day replace the traditional Internet Protocol addressing system we are familiar with (called IPv4). The Google IPv6 Adoption page illustrates roughly how fast the deployment of IPv6 is progressing. As shown, the pace of IPv6 rollout has continued to accelerate since 2013 but will require many more years to reach a full replacement of IPv4.  In 2017, expect to see IPv6 mentioned in the news more often, especially pertaining to business computer networks.

IPv6 benefits everyone either directly or indirectly. By expanding the available IP address space to accommodate an almost limited number of devices, managing subscriber accounts becomes easier for Internet providers. IPv6 adds other improvements, too, that improve the efficiency and security of TCP/IP traffic management on the Internet. People who administer home networks need to learn a new style of IP address notation, but this is not too difficult.

04
of 05

The Rise (and Fall?) of Multi-Band Routers

TP-Link Talon AD7200 Multi-Band Wi-Fi Router
TP-Link Talon AD7200 Multi-Band Wi-Fi Router. tplink.com

Tri-band home wireless routers emerged as a popular home networking product category during 2016. Dual-band wireless broadband routers began the trend to multi-band Wi-Fi networking starting with 802.11n, and tri-band models continue that trend of offering ever greater amounts of total network bandwidth on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.

Some consumers may be challenged to justify the premium prices that newer tri-band models carry. Whereas the trend for most consumer electronics is toward lower prices, tri-band routers cost significantly more than did higher end models a few years ago. Look for the prices to come down in the next year as vendor competition increases.

Or maybe tri-band will quietly fade away in favor of something else. Though vendors might try to introduce models with even higher bandwidth ratings, the diminishing returns of having more network capacity inside a home are already reached for many families. Most likely, products that attempt to integrate the functions of a router together with Internet of Things (IoT) gateway support will prove more interesting to the average consumer. Eventually, but probably not within the next year, home gateways that combine Wi-Fi together with 4G or 5G connectivity options could also become very popular.

05
of 05

Should You Be Afraid of Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Robot Lab Showroom - Paris, 2016
Robot Lab Showroom - Paris, 2016. Nicolas Kovarik/IP3/Getty Images

The field of AI develops computers and machines with human-like intelligence. When world-renowned scientist Steven Hawking (in late 2014) said "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," people took notice.  AI is not new – researchers have studied it for decades. Yet in recent years, the pace of technical developments in artificial intelligence has significantly accelerated. Should we be worried about the direction it is headed in 2017?

In short, the answer is – maybe. The ability of computer systems like Deep Blue to play chess at world champion levels helped legitimize AI 20 years ago. Since then, both the processing speed of computers and the ability to exploit it have advanced tremendously as evidenced by the impressive victories of AlphaGo over world-class Go players. One key barrier to more general-purpose artificial intelligence has been limits on the ability of AI systems to communicate and interact with the outside world. With the much faster wireless connections speeds available today, now it is possible to add sensors and network interfaces to AI systems that will enable impressive new applications.

People tend to underestimate the capabilities of AI today, as the most advanced systems tend to be isolated from the Internet and not integrated with the rest of our tech... or with each other. Watch for big developments in this area soon.