Internet at different speeds

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
21 February, 2017
Editorial: 73
Fecha de publicación original: 27 mayo, 1997

Date of publication 27/05/1997. Editorial 73.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg

Last week I spoke at a debate at a centre of higher education. The other speakers were a senior official from Telefonica and a representative of a cable network operating company. The audience consisted of young graduates in technical professions (technical engineering, chemistry and telecommunications, architecture, computer science, business and audiovisual studies, etc.) and to a lesser degree, in humanities (journalism, anthropology, psychology). The subject, of course was the Internet and and its future in the new century that is already upon us. Telefonica was the first to speak, i.e. its spokesperson. No sooner had he begun than we felt swamped by a sense of futility, the senselessness of our eagerness, the uselessness of our having got together to discuss so banal a topic as the Internet. In short, the man from Telefonica told us that Internet was a waste of time, desperately slow due to technical problems which are difficult to solve, bulimic as regards information to the point of indecipherable confusion, as unsafe as a dark alley full of drug dealers and, to sum up, it was difficult for him to understand the interest it had awakened in people (my imagery, but in essence what he said). He didn’t mention Infovia as the solution to these problems, but it was hardly necessary. No other alternatives remained on the table after what he said.

Once the stupefaction his arguments had caused had died down thanks to the subsequent speeches, I was left with the doubt in my mind as to whether I had heard a personal opinion or if this was really the company line he had been expressing (its always a good thing to keep a tiny corner of ingenuity neat and tidy at the back of one’s mind). Whatever the case, and given the possibility that this message might become the official message of the company before unsuspecting audiences, it might be convenient at this point to remember what is being done to increase the speed of the Internet, the role that telephone operators are playing in this operation and and where the bottlenecks lie. If the picture painted by the Telefonica representative bears any relation to reality, it is precisely the reality outlined to a large extent by some of the telecommunications operators and their respective governments. It seems to me unacceptable that, simultaneously, and as an excuse for preparing the ground for privately owned commercial ventures (which is what Infovia is), they expediently put the fear of God into people who are considering using the Internet.

In a recent European Union report called ” The Future of Internet – What role for Europe?”, urgent and effective action was requested, yet again, along with the corresponding financial commitments needed to put Europe on a par with the US in the use of the Net. The report was drawn up by a group of assessors from the European Commission consisting of experts from universities, public research organisations and the private sector, and created last year in response to “Internet – The Second Generation” initiatives proliferating on the other side of the Atlantic. In the face of this feverish activity (passively contemplated by the Old Continent), and three years after they had lost control over the WWW (developed in the first place at the CERN in Geneva), the report called on the European Commission to promote the formation of an organisation dedicated exclusively to Internet. Analysing the scant penetration that the Internet has had in Europe and the lack of a suitable response to what is happening in the US, the report directly pointed to “the excessive cost of telephone lines” as one of the main obstacles. In fact, according to these experts, the reason that these costs are greater than in the US is due to the monopoly operators in Europe have in the telecommunications sector, something which is about to disappear next year. They recommended that the EU should encourage the development of Internet protocols for prioritizing traffic and create incentives for the development of alternative technologies for domestic access to Internet, such as cable networks and satellite (direct competitors, in many cases, of these monopolistic operators).

The question remains as to whether these recommendations arrive on time, and above all if European operators are capable of responding to this challenge. Competition in a world altered by networks has led them to, initially at least, form alliances among themselves and with their traditional US competitors in joint ventures, in order to construct faster and more reliable global backbone networks (such as that sealed between Telefonica, BT and MCI in the Concert consortium, or that of France Telecom, Deutsche Telecom and Sprint in Global One). However, the challenge is not only a commercial one, but also a question of public policy:

  • The US National Science Foundation, the main promoter of Arpa-Net and NSF-Net, the privatisation of which led to the Internet and, in passing, to the deceleration of the interconnectivity between different networks, is once again financing a high-speed backbone network which will, initially, connect 100 US universities.
  • Clinton has asked Congress for 100 million dollars to finance the Next Generation Internet Initiative.
  • More than 100 universities in the US have committed themselves to investing 50 million dollars of their own funds towards participation in Internet-2.
  • At the end of this week the G7 (the richest countries on the planet) will discuss the possibility of connecting high-speed national networks via the Global Interconnection of Broadband Networks programme.

In other words, there are quite a lot of things happening on the speed front of the networks and the obstacles appear to be more political and commercial than technological (although, of course, these do exist and are not to be taken lightly). Just two weeks ago, George Strawn, director of networks and communications at the NSF warned that the US was not prepared to develop separate intranets from Internet, “as is still the case in Europe and Japan. Our program for a high-speed backbone network for universities will connect with the Internet as soon as possible.”

Internet-2 — which shook the European Commission out of its lethargy and brought about the EU report — aims to develop tools such as multi-casting, streaming, application-sharing, synchronous communications technologies so that users can prepare new long-distance learning systems, digital libraries, virtual laboratories and ways of applying “tele-immersion”. Basically, the objective is that these initiatives become an testbed for the development of high performance applications, connections and protocols which will make Internet a high-speed network. This is not the right moment to discuss the economic and social impact this will have in the societies fully participating in this process. But it is clear that the real debate is not about what Internet is not at the moment, but instead the direction it is taking together with cable networks and satellite in order to increase its speed and versatility.

Translation: Bridget King.