Note: Information true as of 2001

In part one and two of this series we looked back at the history of network computing and at its early pioneers, before exploring how data is distributed through the system by so-called "backbone" companies. Today we look onwards-and-forwards at the future of the medium.

While it may not be popular to say it, the Internet is a medium that has probably grown up too fast for its own good. Back in 1992 what we now know as "the Internet" was envisioned as a fibre-optic network capable of delivering sound and vision in near real-time. However for various reasons this ideal became watered down to a system making use - for most users at least - of normal telephone technology.

However the wheel has now turned full circle: Their is talk once again of a new higher-spec Internet (the so-called Internet2) that will use high transmission rates and fast modems. A topic we will return to later.

Also on the agenda is direct-to-home Satellite Internet. Already being piloted by companies such as SES (owners of the Astra network) and Eutelsat (who run a series of satellites under their own name). This promises higher speed delivery of services, but is not totally immune from the normal Internet traffic jams.

There is also a third player on the market, made possible by new forms of digital television: Off-line Internet. This uses a different concept than normal Internet services in that it uses a carrousel of data which special software picks out only sections. This greatly limits choice, but has the attraction of operating without the need of even a phone line.

This is perhaps the worst time ever to write about Internet regulatory bodies, because change is on its way. As I write Network Solutions Inc. (who presently regulate dot extensions such as .com and .org) and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) are in talks about their future. The US Government are about to put the domain name system into a form of trust, but the hand over process seems to have become bogged down.

This doesn't really effect the average Internet user, but regulating the Internet has always been a problem. In the past the US Administration has spoken as if the Internet is theirs to regulate; which is half-true, given they initially financed it. However today it is a world phenomena.

Ira Magaziner, Bill Clinton's ex spokesperson on the Internet,seems to want to distant herself from any form of censorship of cross-border laws: "Presently there is no international law to regulate cyberspace so that throws the emphasis and responsibility on to the individual user... Any new organisation (re: the new trust) would simply be an instrument to facilitate the easy use of such technology." She says.

Telecommunications has always obeyed the logic of distance+ difficulty = call charge. This allows the telephone companies to charge more for long distance calls as local call. All very logical. However the Internet makes no differential between traffic that crosses the street and traffic that cross the world.

This effects many aspects of the telephone business. The number of cross Atlantic FAX'es has dropped due to the Internet and new technology is emerging that make video conferencing and Internet telephone services possible.

In short, Internet telephone calls use the Internet either to connect two users on the net on a voice connection or uses the Internet to route a call to the users local phone company. At this point in time the medium is in its infancy, but the possible savings in cost for companies spread throughout the world gives the medium a big future.

Perhaps, in the long run, all telephone calls may be charged at a fixed local call rate. With the automation and satellite support this may no longer be such a burden to the system.

The other new player on the block is Web TV. Despite being given a lot of hype the medium has generally received bad reviews. The reasons are usually that the technology is too poor and the programme content is not worth waiting for. However with faster fibre-optic links the playing field will change totally.

Educational programming and multi-platform gaming will have a chance to shine on this medium and Web TV, and its clones, have been written off too quickly. It has to be remembered that leisure - all its forms - is the world's fastest growing business.

While the world has a huge variety of ISP providers - of all shapes and sizes - the risk of power and centralisation being held by too few telecommunications companies is real, but the coin has two sides.

To defend the telecommunications companies slightly, the costs of satellites and fibre optic networks is huge - a business that can be counted in billions sterling. It is not a game for the small man. However if the web rises to be a mainstream medium these companies could have a private thiefdom.

Already we have seen Bill Gates (and others) recognise that.They have been planning a network of private satellites that can deliver data from the skies. Although this will also involve the telephone companies, it will only be too "request data." They could also work as a kind of subscription service, sending packets of data to customers at regular intervals like a newspaper.

A big problem remains speed. The nature of Internet often means that the fastest modem is often only as good as the slowest. This leads to another concept that is presently doing the rounds "push technology."

Push technology makes the Internet more like E-mail:Rounding up the data that the user requests and then sending it down-line as a one-to-one connection. This was actually a method for earlier web exploration that has now fallen into disuse.

This creates a situation where the burden of exploration is thrust from the individual user and on to the ISP; who then has the job of seeking out and mail-boxing the users data ready to send. Naturally this saves on-line time - and therefore telephone bills - but it brings up the ugly issue of censorship.

Today the ISP claim only to be a gateway to the Web. What uses the customer puts to their services is largely none of their business. However push technology is slightly different, they are collecting and distributing material and therefore could become legally responsible for it.

This allows Internet providers to bring in filters to say which locations these push services could use.

Already we have seen groups such as the American Electronic Frontiers Foundation (a group that fights against Internet censorship) raise concern that this might be the backdoor to Web censorship.

On share price alone the fastest growing area of the Internet cyber "real estate." Companies such as Geocities, Lycos and Yahoo! have seen share prices explode over the last few years. Investors presuming the Internet advertising and commerce is going to increase dramatically over the next ten years.

It is ironic that so much interest in the Internet is being fuelled by a slowdown in standard communications systems. In the West the phone installation and usage is flat, and what little increase there is is being eaten away at by new competition. This leaves the Internet as the juicy last prize.

(C) Peter Hayes

Last updated 12.3.2005