David Farber, a veteran of Internet technology and politics, dropped by Cambridge, Mass. today and was gracious enough to grant me some time in between his numerous meetings. On leave from Carnegie Mellon, Dave still intervenes in numerous policy discussions related to the Internet and “plays in Washington,” as well as hosting the popular Interesting People mailing list. This list delves into dizzying levels of detail about technological issues, but I wanted to pump him for big ideas about where the Internet is headed, topics that don’t make it to the list.
How long can the Internet last?
I’ll start with the most far-reaching prediction: that Internet protocols simply aren’t adequate for the changes in hardware and network use that will come up in a decade or so. Dave predicts that computers will be equipped with optical connections instead of pins for networking, and the volume of data transmitted will overwhelm routers, which at best have mixed optical/electrical switching. Sensor networks, smart electrical grids, and medical applications with genetic information could all increase network loads to terabits per second.
When routers evolve to handle terabit-per-second rates, packet-switching protocols will become obsolete. The speed of light is constant, so we’ll have to rethink the fundamentals of digital networking.
I tossed in the common nostrum that packet-switching was the fundamental idea behind the Internet and its key advance over earlier networks, but Dave disagreed. He said lots of activities on the Internet reproduce circuit-like behavior, such as sessions at the TCP or Web application level. So theoretically we could re-architect the underlying protocols to fit what the hardware and the applications have to offer.
But he says his generation of programmers who developed the Internet are too tired (“It’s been a tough fifteen or twenty years”) and will have to pass the baton to a new group of young software engineers who can think as boldly and originally as the inventors of the Internet. He did not endorse any of the current attempts to design a new network, though.
Slaying the bandwidth bottleneck
Like most Internet activists, Dave bewailed the poor state of networking in the U.S. In advanced nations elsewhere, 100-megabit per second networking is available for reasonable costs, whereas here it’s hard to go beyond a 30 megabits (on paper!) even at enormous prices and in major metropolitan areas. Furthermore, the current administration hasn’t done much to improve the situation, even though candidate Obama made high bandwidth networking a part of his platform and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski talks about it all the time.
Dave has been going to Washington on tech policy consultations for decades, and his impressions of the different administrations has a unique slant all its own. The Clinton administration really listened to staff who understood technology–Gore in particular was quite a technology junkie–and the administration’s combination of judicious policy initiatives and benign neglect led to the explosion of the commercial Internet. The following Bush administration was famously indifferent to technology at best. The Obama administration lies somewhere in between in cluefulness, but despite their frequent plaudits for STEM and technological development, Dave senses that neither Obama nor Biden really have the drive to deal with and examine complex technical issues and insist on action where necessary.
I pointed out the U.S.’s particular geographic challenges–with a large, spread-out population making fiber expensive–and Dave countered that fiber to the home is not the best solution. In fact, he claims no company could make fiber pay unless it gained 75% of the local market. Instead, phone companies should string fiber to access points 100 meters or so from homes, and depend on old copper for the rest. This could deliver quite adequate bandwidth at a reasonable cost. Cable companies, he said, could also greatly increase Internet speeds.
Fixed wireless ISPs offer Internet access to thousands of communities, mostly rural ones with no other access except dial-up. These ISPs face interconnection problems because they are distrusted or ignored by the incumbents carriers. Mobile wireless companies are pretty crippled by loads that they encouraged (through the sale of app-heavy phones) and then had problems handling, and are busy trying to restrict users’bandwidth. But a combination of 4G, changes in protocols, and other innovations could improve their performance.
Waiting for the big breach
I mentioned that in the previous night’s State of the Union address, Obama had made a vague reference to a cybersecurity initiative with a totally unpersuasive claim that it would protect us from attack. Dave retorted that nobody has a good definition of cybersecurity, but that this detail hasn’t held back every agency with a stab at getting funds for it from putting forward a cybersecurity strategy. The Army, the Navy, Homeland Security, and others are all looking or new missions now that old ones are winding down, and cybersecurity fills the bill.
The key problem with cybersecurity is that it can’t be imposed top-down, at least not on the Internet, which, in a common observation reiterated by Dave, was not designed with security in mind. If people use weak passwords (and given current password cracking speeds, just about any password is weak) and fall victim to phishing attacks, there’s little we can do with dictats from the center. I made this point in an article twelve years ago. Dave also pointed out that viruses stay ahead of pattern-matching virus detection software.
Security will therefore need to be rethought drastically, as part of the new network that will replace the Internet. In the meantime, catastrophe could strike–and whoever is in the Administration at the time will have to face public wrath.
Odds without ends
We briefly discussed FCC regulation, where Farber tends to lean toward asking the government to forebear. He acknowledged the merits of arguments made by many Internet supporters, that the FCC tremendously weakened the chances for competition in 2002 when it classified cable Internet as a Title 1 service. This shielded the cable companies from regulations under a classification designed back in early Internet days to protect the mom-and-pop ISPs. And I pointed out that the cable companies have brazenly sued the FCC to win court rulings saying the companies can control traffic any way they choose. But Farber says there are still ways to bring in the FCC and other agencies, notably the Federal Trade commission, to enforce anti-trust laws, and that these agencies have been willing to act to shut down noxious behavior.
Dave and I shared other concerns about the general deterioration of modern infrastructure, affecting water, electricity, traffic, public transportation, and more. An amateur pilot, Dave knows some things about the air traffic systems that make one reluctant to fly. But there a few simple fixes. Commercial air flights are safe partly because pilots possess great sense and can land a plane even in the presence of confusing and conflicting information. On the other hand, Dave pointed out that mathematicians lack models to describe the complexity of such systems as our electrical grid. There are lots of areas for progress in data science.