Investors, executives, and
industry watchers are getting increasingly giddy over the
possibilities of Internet-enabled devices available anywhere, via
cell phones, Web terminals, and PDAs like the Palm Pilot.
Companies providing possible infrastructure -- from
telecommunications carriers, to network equipment makers, to device
makers, to operating-system creators -- are hot because of the
"What I like here is that the
devices are starting to do things for you without you having
to fuss with them."
Making all this happen -- or even just significant pieces of it
-- will require certain technological underpinnings to be in place.
That's what Vint Cerf pays attention to at MCI WorldCom (WCOM),
where he is senior vice president for Internet architecture and
Cerf co-created the Internet's TCP/IP in 1973 with Robert Kahn,
and continues to help steer the Internet's evolution at
Adrian Mello, Galen Gruman, Cameron Crotty and Chuck Lenatti spoke
with Cerf about what it would take to make the Internet-everywhere
Making wireless real
UpsideToday: There's a lot of buzz around wireless IP right
now, but there's a lot of skepticism about how real it is and how
useful it might be.
Cerf: It's quite real. I was at Telcom 99 in Geneva, and
everywhere you went it was WAP [wireless application protocol]. And
you could see an awful lot of utility in being able to get wireless
access to information. I think that we're going to see a lot more of
the wireless access, and it'll show up in a bunch of different ways.
The third-generation cell phone stuff sounds really exciting. It's
on the order of 2 megabits per second in burst data rate.
UT: There are issues of access with wireless technology -- you
need a line-of-sight to the transmitter and so on.
Cerf: Oh, there's all kinds of issues associated with this
radio-based stuff. But think about what it's like to be wireless. I
have a wireless LAN on my machine; I have a wireless LAN at home. So
I just sort of wander into the house and I'm on the Net. My machine
figures out that it's in a new radio link and it resyncs and
reallocates an IP address. It's all pretty much transparent.
Imagine a really smart radio machine that just automatically paid
attention to its radio environment, and it picked the highest
bandwidth thing it could find?
First it asks, "Is there anybody running Bluetooth?" And then it
says, "Well, is there anybody running a radio LAN?" and it looks for
that. And if you can't find that, then it says, "Is there any
Ricochet out there?"
And if that doesn't work, then its next step probably is try to
get a digital signal out of the equivalent of a cell phone band.
UT: But you're talking about three or four different
transceivers running three or four different protocols and all
talking to each other. There has to be one controlling authority for
the radios, in a sense.
Cerf: Well, yeah, that's your PC software. It's that kind
of intelligence and awareness of environment that can make
Internet-enabled things pretty nice to work with. What I like here
is that the devices are starting to do things for you without you
having to fuss with them. This automatic configuration is really
UT: Sun Microsystems (SUNW)
has been pushing that, of course -- quite hard -- and there are some
other efforts like that. How solid are those efforts?
Cerf: I've seen some pretty good applications come up with
the wireless access protocols. I like the one with the camera where
you take a picture and the image is transported to a Web site -- all
wireless, and all automatic.
Is there enough bandwidth?
UT: In the past you've been concerned about the availability
of bandwidth on the Internet. Is that still a concern of yours?
Cerf: It continues to be a concern. I still have my little
morning ritual in which I get up and say a prayer.
UT: Why? This isn't something that we hear a lot. In fact,
very few people seem overly concerned about bandwidth. They're
saying, "We've got tons of dark fiber, so what's the problem?"
Cerf: The issue is not the fiber. That's not the problem.
The problem is the switches. That's the big challenge. And for those
of us at MCI WorldCom, particularly the guys who are trying to keep
UUNet ahead of the demand curve, this is an enormous
They have had to grow the network capacity by roughly a factor of
10 every year for the last three years, and you don't do that by
just throwing more routers at it or lighting more fiber. You have to
rearchitect the system to change the way traffic is managed and the
way in which it flows through the Net.
UT: So why are the switches the problem?
Cerf: Let me just ask you to do a thought experiment. We
recently announced a trial of a 1.6-terabit-per-second link in
Texas. And if you think about what it would be like to do
packet-switching at that speed, a 1,000-bit packet would take half a
nanosecond or thereabouts -- a little more than that: sixth-tenths
of a nanosecond, at one point 6 terabits per second.