February 14, 1997

Considerations for the Future of the Global Internet
The Internet is here to stay. Long an essential resource for the military, a formidable adjunct to academia and industrial research, fast becoming an indispensable tool of business, the global Internet has the possibility to transform society as has no other medium since the introduction of broadcast television. Already the former giants of the infotainment industries are taking tentative steps into the new broadcast medium of the Internet, and this trend can only escalate. There is simply too much profitable commerce to be had.

The Internet permits a synthesis of all of the previous forms of media. Text, audio, video, simulation/gaming display and other multimedia forms will be increasingly explored. Were we to for the moment ignore the commercial aspects of the Internet, still the aspect of Art as-yet-undreamed-of would provide ample incentive to further deployment of Internet to the farthest reaches of the globe, and to the most inaccessible pockets of ruralia or the most destitute corners of the inner-cities.

Commerce, however, cannot be ignored. After all, there are issues of revenue generations here, and issues of control and of access. Radio and television, by their broadcast natures, are inherently "democratic" in terms of access - anyone who could afford a receiver could "access" a broadcast. The Internet, however, particularly in the present tcp-ip preferred mode, is less democratic. It is by nature not a passive vehicle promoting distracted listening or rapt couch-sitting. Indeed, that is the beauty of it - one must participate, it is interactive and that interactivity precludes a mere broadcast mode. One must not only purchase the equipment to receive, but one must pay for access to transmit the control protocols which will send the user (and only the user in most cases) the precise data they wish. It is not so much that one pays for the access, but one rather pays, ultimately, for the lines that carry the signals. One pays for investments in hardware, maintenance, and administration.

Who owns the hardware? While none can be said to be the "owners" of the Internet, or even the Internet's hardware (a million or more Internet hosts are scattered worldwide), clearly there is one portion of the hardware sector that can be considered the bottleneck or chokepoint of this growing medium. That would be the wireline common carriers.

Wireline Common Carriers have petitioned the FCC for a per-minute charge for lines connecting to the Internet. This is nearly intolerable, as it stunts the growth of this new medium as surely as one would stunt the growth of an artist (and thus the art form) by jamming a pointed stick into his brain. The Internet is simply too important an emerging mode to be permitted to be absorbed and controlled by purely commercial interests, lest it eventually be driven by market forces into the cyberspace equivalent of the "Vast Cultural Wasteland" of commercial television. The academic and artistic potentials alone should preclude entertainment of any notion that the Internet might be allowed to be grasped and controlled and limited to those whose accounts-balances are sufficient to pay for access. But it is true that the present wireline services were never designed for traffic of a scale anywhere near that of the present Internet, and the apparent geometric expansion of the Internet over the coming decades necessitates consideration of future alternatives to purely wireline Internet Access.

Alternatives to Wireline Internet
One of the best alternatives to Wireline Internet is seen in the deployment in Washington, DC, Seattle and assorted other regions, of the Ricochet Wireless Modems. Ricochet is not only a distributor of wireless modems, they are also an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Their mode of operation is as follows - one turns on one's computer, the modem powers up and contacts a local mini-cell, located on a nearby phone-pole, and when a packet is sent from the modem via the mini-cell, it is collected at a Local Wireline Access Point. This is connected by fast T1 line to their routers, and thenceforth into the Regional and the Global Internet. Ricochet also states that their modems can, in the absence of a local mini-cell, communicate on a peer-to-peer basis.

This is the future of the Internet - peer-to-peer communications over large areas, via packet-forwarding in radio frequencies (See also the SUPERNet proposals). I expect that very soon, enterprising programmers will discover how to run UNIX routing software in conjunction with modems of the Ricochet type, and will increasingly engage in peer-to-peer routing of local-area packets. This is in direct adherence to the Internet Philosophy. The Internet was, after all, designed to permit communication to go through even in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Any action which permits wireline Common Carriers to move towards a stranglehold on internet access is in direct contravention of the Internet Philosophy.

Wireline Common Carriers, it would seem, would still have something of a monopoly on the long-distance transmission of Internet communications. But there is nothing to prevent consortium of private investors from laying their own lines, are there? While for-profit interLATA communications might be tariffable, how would the FCC regulate line-of-sight interLATA communications between Ricochet modems operating on a peer-to-peer basis? Should the FCC regulate this? Some of those packets might be carrying Internet Telephone, RealAudio, or Internet Video data. I would personally think that regulating such modem peer-to-peer nonwireline transmissions on unlicensed frequencies would be regulatory interference on the side of established industry giants and inherently anti-competitive and not in the spirit of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

What of Ham Packet Radio? This would provide some alternative to wireline Common Carrier transmission of Internet data. Of course, bandwidth is at a premium, but Ham Packet Radio would provide more routes and less "bottlenecking" and overload, which is after all the primary complaint of the wireline providers seeking per-minute rates. There will of course be emergent technologies, as more satellite options become available. Perhaps not only commercial satellites owned by consortiums of wireline Common Carriers would be involved - high-intensity low-noise laser-light is becoming rapidly very affordable, and a simple mirrored balloon in orbit might suffice for much of the 'udp' (universal datagram protocol) traffic, which is normally used for "broadcast" transmissions anyway, for things like UseNet news feeds. Cheap lasers and orbital mirrors, HAM Packet Radio, and peer-to-peer unlicensed wireless modems should be the future of the internet, not penny-grubbing transnational corporate combines overbuilding a wireline system which is rapidly becoming outmoded and incapable of handling present, much less future, needs.

I would hazard the prediction that where companies such as Ricochet will undoubtedly eventually meet with great commercial success, there will as quickly develop "undernets" or "underground networks", with increasing amounts of traffic in peer-to-peer mode, and in rural areas, instead of mini-cells, I expect that local consortiums of citizens will form, purchasing IMMARSAT Mobile-Office-type equipment, and translate down into unlicensed frequencies, in effect creating their own mini-cells, perhaps serving a small town and the immediate outlying areas. At the present time, in terms of costs this is a bit less expensive than laying T1 to the town, and will certainly get their school on the net. Such options should be greatly promoted over reliance on wireline connections which would be at risk in severe weather. Decentralization of the Internet should be preferred at all times over anything which tends to centralize it.

In summation, I would request that the Commission would inquire deeply as to furthering non-wireline decentralized (and ideally unlicensed) Internet over increasingly-centralized wireline commercial Internet. If commerce is to be generated, let it be in the form of technical advances and sales of those advances, rather than as commerce generated through telco penny-pinching, stock-swaps and mergers. Please consider giving a free hand to freewheeling technical advances and innovative implimentations in non-wireline personal-unlicensed Internet, and please don't let the industry-giant telcos swallow up a great new thing even as it's born.

Sincerely,
-----BEGIN PGP PUBLIC KEY BLOCK-----
Version: 2.6.2

mQCNAzLuw7kAAAEEAKtHQV6AJqi36F2W+tlwbGnBNRMtwaDd83gIZUtS7Bu24kIQ
3fsSxHCXJH+HFou9gwo9S1fbZk7V4BTz27xXnBW5HYGsKuucRqOhVdLhJPwVjBxR
d7ziX+SoiY+nSIBQBmlvHP/f/VGvdo/gdZMPPAevXO7MAA++QepCF3FH9NOJAAUR
tBprbGFhdHUgPHJvb3RAZWFydGhvcHMub3JnPg==
=N6le
-----END PGP PUBLIC KEY BLOCK-----
Go to the Business MetaIndex Page.
Visit the Computing MetaIndex Page.
Visit the Sciences MetaIndex Page.
Visit the Earth Operations Central District Office. Try a Glimpse HTTP Search (searches HTML content).
Go back to the main EarthOps Homepage.