IN THIS THREE
PART SERIES PETER HAYES LOOKS AT THE PAST, PRESENT AND
FUTURE OF THE INTERNET FROM A TECHNICAL AS WELL AS
POLITICAL POINT OF VIEW. TODAY - IN THE THIRD PART - HE
LOOKS AT THE FUTURE OF THE MEDIUM.
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
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
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
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.