Broadband, the semantic web, XML, Web 2.0,... and grid computing. (That covers the software, hardware and plumbing.)
I've posted a few times before about telecoms analyst Paul Budde and his company. I'm going to reproduce here some comments from a free email newsletter from BuddeComm - simply because I can't find them elsewhere on the web, and they're quite thought-provoking.
Social benefits of fibre - Dutch computer grid
"An increasing number of Dutch towns have opted for municipal fibre networks, whether co-funded by local governments and housing associations or developed by commercial enterprises. An interesting computer-grid system has developed from this, first attempted in the Amsterdam suburb of Almere in 2004 and recently launched. The idea is to combine municipal FttH with the combined computing power of business and residential subscribers for research calculations, and taking advantage of the computers' free hard disk space. Grandly, the scheme was touted as developing a supercomputer city. Several distributed computing grids exist worldwide, but the geographic concentration at Almere helps combat latency, while the participating computers are linked to a 100Mb/s network to optimise data sharing. Indeed, Almere is one of 18 projects of the EC's BEinGrid research program to assess the possibilities of grid computing.
"Some practical applications have been suggested to take advantage of the collective power of multi-computer processing, achieving computations in a fraction of the time normally taken. These range from complex 3D designs, image searching and retrieval, weather predictions, and crunching medical research data. This last area illustrates the booming business in online medical applications and advice, whether from established cottage hospitals and surgeries, or even clairvoyants. Many councils and hospital trusts are saving money by relying on online medical care, achieved through web cams and interactive units managed by people at home. The grid network is allowing research to be undertaken using the resources of PCs and thus saving the high cost of data storage and specialist computers. Rotterdam's Erasmus Medical Centre is just such an example: a study on bone aging requires scans of up to five gigabytes each. These are done by computers on Almere's grid, and are then uploaded to the hospital."
"Transferring data on this scale requires fibre networks, and the fact that it can be done in conjunction with computer grids opens the door for innumerable commercial applications. That The Netherlands is in the forefront of both of these developments strengthens the argument that in coming years jobs, prosperity and a range of social benefits in Europe will follow where broadband infrastructure is strongest."
Maybe they're jumping the gun here - and maybe they're not. It's certainly very forward thinking. I can picture just where they're headed. I don't think this sort of project will be an instant success, and will require a few iterations to make it work, but it's extraordinarily visionary.
And maybe Europe will lead the world. Its geography lends itself well to such a project - perhaps more so than anywhere else.