Tuesday, April 14, 1998

"How many of you use e-mail everyday?"

All hands rise.

"How many use the web everyday?"

All hands rise.

"How many of you can imitate the sounds of a modem?"

The otherwise adult room breaks into a cacophony of bizarre screeching.

The man with the questions is Robert Metcalfe, one of the inventors of the internet, a founder of 3COM, and now a professional pundit for International Data Group. He is speaking to about 100 members of the MIT Club of Dallas, a group that feels more comfortable than most when the conversation drifts to megahertz and bandwidth.

Mr. Metcalfes topic: the future of the internet.

"Predicting the future of the internet isnt what we should be doing. We should be choosing the future of the internet," he says.

Here is how he answered some of the questions about the internet and how its future should be chosen:

How fast is the internet/web developing?

"It isnt happening as fast as some of the hype. For some perspective, consider the fact that after 150 years of telephony, fewer than 50 percent of the people on earth have ever made a phone call." The internet, he points out, has been developing for more than 25 years. From the development of the arpanet for the defense department in 1969; the invention of the ethernet local area network and the internet wide area network in 1973; to the invention of the world wide web in 1990; and the first web "browser", Mosaic, in 1993. Now there are 100 million web users and the number will grow to somewhere between 200 million and a billion by the year 2000. "Its still happening very, very fast."

How are things different?

"What people have missed is a fundamental change. When computing was in its infancy the model was "n" people for one computer. Then we had personal computers and the model changed to one person, one computer. And now it is shifting again to one person, "n" computers— via the internet. Over time the percentage of (telephone) communication that is voice will be near zero."

What are the most fundamental problems of the internet?

"The internet is some 4,500 service providers. They dont cooperate with each other and many are not financially viable. The net is slowing down for lack of cooperation." He pointed out that slowdowns on the world wide web— dubbed "world wide wait" by some— come from overloaded web server computers, inadequate telephone links and overloaded backbone links.

One odd source of slowdown, he observed, was the original computer code, http, which allows people to send common files over the net. Invented by physicist Tim Berners Lee, it created as much as ten times more communications packets than were necessary. A new (and more economical) version was soon to be deployed, he said.

The final bottleneck was the modem. "Dial-up modems are an abomination. They layer modern digital packet switching on top of old analog. Faster modems— moving from 14.4 to 28.8 to 33.6— arent the answer. The answer is "M"— megabits— not increases in "K"— kilobits."

What is the best technology to speed up the web to "M"?

"It isnt ISDN. Thats too little, too late. Its still only 128k bits and it still moves through the local monopoly carrier. Its not where the telephone companies should be investing their money."

Mr. Metcalfe also eliminated:

  • the new ADSL standard supported by Compaq, Intel, and Microsoft because it was designed for movies, not internet access;
  • wireless, because it will always be slow and expensive;
  • satellite, because its capacity was too low;
  • and optical fibers everywhere, because it wouldnt happen soon enough.

If he had to make a choice it would be DSL, but he worried that local phone company control of copper wires would kill it.

His biggest worry for the development of the web?

"Its time to dismantle the phone monopolies. Were heading for Internet Wars that are like Star Wars. Only in this, the internet is The Force, the local telephone carrier is the Evil Empire, the telephone central offices are the Death Stars and they are protected by legions of Imperial Storm Lawyers."

At the beginning of his speech, Mr. Metcalfe said that he is paid to be opinionated. He earns his keep.