The Internet at Age Fifty

How the Underlying Model Keeps Changing

The first use of the Internet (a.k.a. Arpanet) occurred in October 1969.  It was a failure.  Only the first two letters of “LOGIN,” sent from UCLA, managed to arrive at their destination, the Stanford Research Institute.  Intra-university networks were already established on major campuses but their IT managers were discovering that the Education School rarely wanted to communicate with the Biology Department.  (More recently government broadband networks have learned the same lesson from silo ministries and agencies.) Instead, the academics wanted to talk with their colleagues in other locations.

So began today’s Inter-net, connecting same-discipline researchers across universities and a few research centers like SRI.  From a Defense Department research project, the Net rapidly morphed into a Public Private Partnership linking public and private universities with government support.  Over time a killer app emerged, allowing engineers and other early techies to send email to each other.  Only after the web browser was introduced in the early 1990s did the Internet become the worldwide web of today.

This process of the Internet “devolving” while keeping its users connected took 30 years.  So now, as the Internet approaches its fiftieth birthday, where is it headed and what other transformations might we expect?  We already know of its assuming multiple identities, albeit overlapping ones, as national and regional authorities from the Chinese government to the EU have sought to shape or control it.  The Internets (plural) as some refer to it.  In the next stage Internet traffic consisting mainly of video and audio content will flow through Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), enormous platforms of storage, promotion and connectivity that will dwarf the world’s distributed websites. 

What was a highly distributed network is being superseded by these new mega-platforms (think FAANGs and BATs) with national and regional data storage points through which most IP traffic will pass as of next year, according to Cisco’s VNI estimates.  By 2021, 60% of IP traffic will be CDN-mediated.  In effect we are returning to a version of the old broadcasting model, albeit with much greater viewing schedule flexibility. Google, Facebook and Netflix are in some respects the new ABC, CBS and NBC.

What will keep this CDN-reconfigured Internet of tomorrow going?  In the developed world the Internet is running out of users.  This has focused the commercial web on getting existing, largely ageing users to use the Internet more often—or have automated users (robots, M2Ms, AI and the like) play a bigger role while getting the ageing users and their suppliers (businesses, governments—a.k.a. Smart Cities) to pay the freight.  Otherwise, the growth of the web depends on recruiting new users from the developing world, where three or four billion remain uninitiated.

What kind of Internet regime will help achieve these objectives—a net neutrality one, a net freedom one, or something else, possibly even two parallel competing regimes, which seems to have worked for the growth of smartphone users and apps.  In the end, however, whatever regime is adopted by the Internet community or by more traditional control agents, will need to interact with evolving forces like the CDNs, content localization, IoT and oral translators that lie ahead.

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