Telecommunications is a general term for a broad range of technologies used to convey information over distances both great and small. The public switched telephone system, mobile telephony, satellite communications, computer networks, the Internet, and radio and television broadcasting services all fall under the general heading of telecommunications. Although most of us tend to associate the term with modern technologies, telecommunication has been around in some form or another since ancient times.
The discovery of electricity in the nineteenth century led to the invention of the telegraph, and later the telephone, enabling communications to occur in real time over great distances. Immense strides in the development of communications technology in just the last few decades have changed our leisure activities, the way we work, and the way we perceive the world in which we live. An understanding of these technologies, how they work, their impact on society, the economic implications they engender, and where they will lead us in the future are therefore of considerable importance to us.
One aspect of telecommunications that dominates modern life is the Internet which, together with the World Wide Web, have created a global electronic environment (sometimes referred to as the "Global Village") in which communication can take place virtually instantaneously between individuals and groups of people regardless of their geographical location. The Internet has been in existence since the 1960s in one form or another. The World Wide Web did not appear until 1989, and took a few years to have any impact on society beyond the academic and scientific communities. Today, however, there is an entire generation who have never known a world without it.
The Internet has brought many benefits to both the commercial world and to individuals. It has, perhaps inevitably, also presented a number of challenges. In terms of politics, it represents new opportunities to those seeking a voice, and new threats to those who would like to suppress those voices. As such, it could be said to be a democratising force, although there is also a potential for misuse. The Internet could be an incredibly powerful propaganda weapon if its content could be controlled and directed. So far, such control has been limited to restricting access rather than manipulating content.
The social impact of the Internet has been immense. Positive aspects include the availability of, and access to, on-line information and services. Whether you need a weather forecast for Plymouth for the next few days, the latest scores in the Premier League, or the availability of flights to Ibiza, the information you need is rarely more than a few clicks away. New modes of electronic communication have enabled people to stay in touch with each other no matter where in the world they are, and even to track down long-lost friends and relatives.
Businesses both large and small have been quick to exploit Internet technologies to take advantage of new market paradigms and a global customer base, and e-commerce has revolutionised not only the way businesses interact with consumers, but how they interact with each other. New forms of social interaction have evolved, from on-line gaming to social networking, while forums, message boards and chat services abound.
Negative aspects include the proliferation of pornographic materials, with particular concerns being expressed about child pornography. Software and media piracy are also of concern, although a lot of people probably derive some satisfaction from the fact that the media industry has had to re-think its retail pricing policies as a result of falling revenues, having in the past made huge profits. Internet-related time-theft is another measurable phenomenon. According to some sources, the average UK employee spends nearly an hour a day surfing the web.
Whether you like it or not however the Internet, like the bomb, cannot be un-invented. The genie is out of the bottle and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Ultimately the Internet is a communication medium, just like the telephone network or the postal service. How its use will evolve, and the long term implications it will have for society, remain to be seen.