"It doesn't seem like a day goes by without some other interesting breakthrough" in content and applications, he said, and the job of the telecom industry is to keep up with markets driven by the explosive demand. At the same time, constant breakthroughs are making it possible to divide the spectrum on fibre networks and radio waves into narrower and narrower slices, meaning an almost unlimited supply of bandwidth.
"Our single biggest area of huge productivity is bandwidth," he said, speaking at a telecommunications conference in Spain yesterday. "It's absolutely obvious that we ought to be wasting bandwidth everywhere, in order to make everything else simple."
Cochrane predicted that an explosion of media content is around the corner and will include movies that can be downloaded as simply as today's music lovers can download songs via Napster. The motion picture industry may be forced to adopt a new marketing paradigm, practically giving away content over the Web, while making the bulk of its revenue off merchandising items like toys and t-shirts, he said.
As a sample of things to come, he said that he had downloaded from the Internet a movie trailer for "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," and black-market versions of the entire film were available online, for free, a week after it premiered in cinemas. The problem, though, is downloading films in a reasonable amount of time.
"You want to try downloading 'Star Wars' even over a T-1 line; it's incredibly frustrating," he said.
In the long term, a major threat to today's telecom industry comes from what he called "parasitic networks" formed by the cooperation of multiple low-power wireless devices using standards like Bluetooth, Cochrane said. An individual could potentially send data from a tiny device contained in a piece of jewellery; that data could then pass to another person's handheld device, then bounce to a "blue box" in a nearby house or school, and so on, finding the shortest path to its final destination, all without any reliance on a centralised network.
In this scenario, he said, "we have a world where people, because they're no longer bolted down, come together, and there is chaos." Hierarchical systems are "dead in the water ... low, flat networks is the only hope." Decentralised systems based on IP (Internet Protocol) are the obvious choice for the near-term future, he said.
Cochrane closed with an admonition to his audience, most of them professionals from the telecom industry, in the form of a quotation from Charles Darwin: "Who will survive? Not the strongest, not the most intelligent, but those most responsive to change."