The 'Net will break, we'll have to fix it, say panelists

The Internet is going to break several times over the next few years, causing carriers to scramble for more bandwidth, according to keynote panelists at last week's Spring Internet World 98. 'We're going to run as fast as we can, give it more bandwidth and more flexibility within that bandwidth,' said Jeanette Symons, chief technology officer at Ascend Communications. The bandwidth that will be offered will be 'driven by the imaginations of the content providers,' she said, pointing to the increased demands of multimedia.

The Internet is going to break several times over the next few years, causing carriers to scramble for more bandwidth, according to keynote panelists here at last week's Spring Internet World 98.

"We're going to run as fast as we can, give it more bandwidth and more flexibility within that bandwidth," said Jeanette Symons, chief technology officer at Ascend Communications. The bandwidth that will be offered will be "driven by the imaginations of the content providers," she said, pointing to the increased demands of multimedia.

Those buildouts, though, are creating smarter networks that know what to do with packets. "Networks need to be more specific, and not just push bits faster, but smarter."

UUNet Technologies ice President Alan Taffel, sitting in for CEO John Sidgmore who was dealing with the US Department of Justice inquiries about the WorldCom/MCI merger, said a shift in consumption of bandwidth from humans to chips is making it difficult to predict how much to build out. "By the year 2003, only 1% of calls will be voice between human beings," Taffel said. The networks of the 21st century will be built for data, not voice.

"When it was human growth, we knew it was a growth rate of 4% per year," he said. Now, with the more than 10x-per-year growth in chip capacity, those predictions are less than clear.

Taffel called bandwidth hogs such as fax machines, cell phones and PCs with modems "silicon cockroaches."

"We'll build bandwidth as fast as we can, build the technology to go with it, and stay ahead of the curve," he said. "But just barely."

"The wild card [in predicting bandwidth] is video," said Dave Garrison, CEO of Netcom On-Line Communications. "It is going to have a whipsaw effect as it becomes more common on the 'Net."

As more services are added to the 'Net and carriers and service providers add more bandwidth, those costs could be transferred to customers, the panelists said. Right now, the Internet, besides a monthly access fee bandwidth is basically free. In the future, bandwidth pricing could be distance-sensitive as in the phone industry, Taffel said. "Eventually someone will have to pay for it," Symons said.

Symons said companies are building out without knowing what they're going to do with the added capacity. Garrison said the key to combating this is focus on standards and to listen to the needs of customers.

"Ten years ago, we said were going to get out of the modem business," Ascend's Symons said. "Today, we ship a million modems." She attributed this to the difficulty in getting access to other technologies, including cable modems and digital subscriber line.

The panelists said cable is not a feasible answer for businesses because it does not go to office buildings, has security concerns because it is a shared medium and is a storage hog.

Garrison said a prediction by The Yankee Group that Internet service providers (ISPs) will shrink to less than 75 is "hogwash." Instead, he said service providers will become more specialized based on content or geography, leading to even more in existence.

Addressing the allure of IP telephony, another bandwidth hog, Taffel said it will only be attractive to small to midsize businesses. The inexpensiveness will combat the performance issues that Fortune 1,000 companies would not tolerate. "Fifty percent of international calls are fax and they will move to the 'Net," he said. But companies will have to make decisions about person-to-person calls.

"We still have much higher expectations of our voice networks than we do our data networks," Symons said. "If an e-mail takes an hour to deliver, we accept that. But we don't accept picking up the phone and not having a dial tone," she added.

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