The Internet has revolutionized the world around us – transforming the way that we use and share data to communicate, collaborate and consume entertainment and information.  Yet, the next wave of technology isn’t just about moving data from one place to another. It’s about connecting physical objects to the Internet on an unprecedented scale.

Increasingly, the “things” connected are the shirts on our backs, the glasses on our foreheads, the watches on our wrists, and the jewelry around our necks. Collectively, these emerging devices are referred to as “wearables.”

To be sure, some wearables are mere novelties.  However, many others - like the Fitbit or Apple Watch – are improving our health and wellness by tracking our daily activities. And the most advanced wearables have the power to save lives and improve patient outcomes.

For example, there’s an FDA approved heart-rate monitor that provides precise information from cardiac patients to their physicians between visits to the doctor’s office. Another device looks like a typical smartwatch.  But in reality it helps epileptic patients manage their stress and alert family members and physicians when a convulsive seizure happens.  And a third, a prototype in development, is a glucose-monitoring contact lens that allows diabetics to monitor their blood sugar continuously.

The possibilities are endless:  Virtual reality goggles that provide for immersive education; connected football helmets to alert the team physician to a possible concussion; GPS-enabled slippers to make sure an elderly relative is getting out of bed and doesn’t wander off; and accessories that make mobile payments faster and easier.

Now, the one feature that unites these devices is their wireless connectivity to the Internet. Each contains a tiny radio transmitter that sends data to a receiving device – such as a Wi-Fi router or smartphone.  Then, the data is transmitted over an IP network to a server or data storage facility.

Once online, software allows you to visualize and analyze the data to help improve decision-making – whether it’s information about your daily run, your average number of steps per day to gauge your fitness progress, or simply storing video so you can decide whether to post it at a later date.

At Cisco, we’ve been monitoring the growth of wearables for three years, and it’s fair to say that these devices are poised to take off.  Here’s the forecast from our most recent Cisco mobile visual network index report:

  • By 2020, we forecast approximately 600 million wearable devices globally, up from 97 million in 2015.  Fewer than 15 percent of these devices are expected to be directly capable of transmitting on a cellular network – most instead will use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to connect to the Internet.
  • The data generated by wearables represents a tiny trickle in the larger stream of mobile data, mostly because only a few of these devices are being used to transmit video.  Traffic from wearables is forecast to account for only 1 percent of total mobile data traffic by 2020, even as the amount of data generated by each device is expected to grow.
  • North America has a 40 percent share of global connections today – we are early adopters. But that falls to 30 percent by 2020 as Europe and Asia catches up with us. By 2020, there are forecast to be over 180 million wearable devices in use in North America, compared to around 40 million today, representing a 4.5 fold increase in just 5 years.

Given this growth, it’s important for policymakers to understand the issues affecting wearables.

We need to ensure that radio spectrum is available with the right set of rules to make sure these devices can connect to the network.  We need policies that support investment in the service provider networks that are needed to transport data to the Internet.  

We need policies that encourage start ups and small companies by ensuring access to venture capital, tax policies that support research & development, as well as encouraging more young people to enter careers in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM. And we need to ensure that device manufacturers and applications developers understand privacy and security threats, and take steps to protect their devices and the personal information of consumers.

Here’s the bottom line:  wearables represent a measurable component of the mobile landscape, and they are projected to continue to grow. They hold incredible promise to improve our lives. Public policies that encourage the development of this category should be supported so that the United States can continue to be a leader in this next chapter of the Internet.

Webster is vice president of Global Marketing and Corporate Communications for Cisco. This article is adapted from testimony he provided recently to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.