Sounding off on the Net's next frontier

Sounding off on the Net's next frontier

As if carrying the moniker "the father of the Internet" wasn't enough to grab a crowd's attention, MCI WorldCom senior vice president Vinton Cerf kicked off a presentation this week in Tokyo with a video clip of grey and ear-less aliens in alien lands. In the presentation, the man who jointly developed TCP/IP, the protocol on which the Internet is now based, predicted that by 2008, a ring of satellites would be orbiting Mars to provide Internet access to future space missions there. Following the talk, Cerf spent some time with Rob Guth and Michael Drexler, giving his views on the mix of the Internet and entertainment, and why he feels his 30-year-old protocol will carry advanced digital services into future homes.

IDG: We want to start by looking at the effect of the Internet on the entertainment industry - in particular, the big topic now is music distribution on the Internet.

Cerf: There is a lot of consternation flying around about that topic right now. I think that's cool.

How do you see this developing? Will the rapid spread of audio compression technology MP3 (which has no copyright protection and thus has angered record companies) force the Warner Musics of the world to change their business models, or are music companies going to successfully adopt technologies that will protect their copyrights online?

Music companies are very concerned about protection of copyright and there is a paranoia which is understandable. But, the easy duplication of master quality stuff is a killer for those business models. You can't stop technology. It just doesn't work. You can't stop it, so you have to figure out how to live with it. And so in this case, it may be in the way in which producers of music are compensated (in future) may be very different than the way it has been done in the past.

There are a lot of music artists who are in love with MP3 for the simple reason that it disintermediates the music companies and lets them (musicians) get directly to their listeners. For a lot of these guys the issue isn't making money, it's making music that people listen to. A lot of times you will find bands who get on the Net, record their stuff and then multicast that way. . . They get on a Web site and then put the music out that way.

I think you're seeing beginnings of a transformation, a restructuring of that business. How it is going to come out, I don't know. I'm not an expert. Besides, I would have to understand business a lot better than I do. But there is no question in my mind that the technology is forcing a significant rethinking in how you compensate.

So if music is the focus of today, when do you think technology and bandwidth will be at a level that Hollywood can deliver movies on the Net?

Well that's interesting. We are not very far away from being able to deliver VHS quality (video) on the Internet. The problem is that we can't deliver it uniformly everywhere because not everyone has T1 (1.5Mbps) capability. You need about 400Kbps to deliver VHS-like video over the Net.

There are lots of places on the Internet where you can't get 400Kbps because there is some bottleneck somewhere. But as time goes on, and we "fibreise" most of the network, delivering a megabit or two seems reasonable. We may even get there on mobile (access) with the third generation of digital mobile, the CDMA-based technologies. The guys at Qualcomm (a provider of CDMA technology) tell me that that they are targeted at a burst rate of 2Mbps. You won't get a sustained 2Mbps, but you may get enough to produce pretty good video, and certainly good audio.

Having a view of the plans MCI WorldCom has in wrapping the world in fibre can you give us any predictions of when major metropolitan areas will have that capability?

When you look at it from a business point of view we have 38,000 buildings on our fibre network. (NOTE: It's actually 43,000 according to an MCI WorldCom official present) . . . Those buildings are capable of getting OC3 (156Mbps) or DS3 (45Mbps) capacity. So you could deliver video and audio and a whole bunch of other stuff. But for residences, it's a whole different story.

Today's current analog cable system can carry enough digital packets per second to produce perfectly good multicast, high-quality video. I don't have to build two-way cable to do that. All I have to do is to digitise the video at the (cable) head-end, packetise it and send it as Internet packets to Internet-enabled television sets. I can take that same traffic and send it down a digital broadcast satellite. I can take it off the Internet from local loop if I have enough bandwidth on it. Digital subscribers loop line is say 500Kbps in each direction, or 750Kbps in each direction. So I have a variety of media in which I could deliver digital television, Internet-enabled, IP-encapsulated digital television.

Why am I stressing this? Well, the fact is that the most effective way of delivering this digitised stuff may be to take the old analog system and just a 6MHz channel on it and digitise the packets and blast them through. The reason it is interesting and different from just sending MPEG, is that once you start sending IP packets then you don't have to send only IP audio or only IP video. I could send both of those and anything else that I can carry in an Internet packet. It might include ancillary background material on the program being played. It could be a music score. It could be anything.

Finally, in your opinion what do you think will be the important story this year about Japan and the Internet?

Well look, this is a big market. The telecom market here is like $US120 billion, so the first and obvious thing is, how can we take advantage of that? How can we get into that market? We believe that there is a way into that market by building our own facilities here, and competing head-to-head with the incumbent with better service and lower cost.

And so there is a story there, but probably the biggest and most interesting story is the one that the folks who live here are still trying to figure out: how come we're not taking (the Internet) up as fast (as elsewhere in the world)? And if you want to do a good comparative analysis, ask the same question in Italy. The Italians are having the same problem. While their neighbours are gobbling up the Internet like crazy, and the French have finally awakened to the fact that Minitel is not going to carry them into the 21st century, the Italians are busy selling cell phones all over the place . . . The interesting question is, what makes a country ingest the Internet?

There is important analysis worth doing here, because the US has gotten into the Internet very quickly, partly because the local tariffs are zero for local calls. No other country in the world has that particular perk. But figuring out what barriers there are to adopting Internet services here is an important question.

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