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The Next Net Frontiers

Dr. Madanmohan Rao
Internet Consultant & Writer
June 2001

Scaleable and seamless extension of the Internet to mobile devices, the solar system in open space, and user-friendly names for online resources are some of the next frontiers of today's Internet, according to its leading developers and shapers.

Other pressing issues such as governance of Internet infrastructure and bridging the digital divide in emerging economies also figured prominently in the one-week summit INET 2001, hosted in Stockholm recently by the Internet Society (www.isoc.org), a global umbrella organization dedicated to the open evolution and promotion of the Internet.

"The Internet will have to extend beyond planet Earth in order to support the exploration of the solar system. No standards underlie communications of previous missions of spacecraft," said WorldCom vice president Vint Cerf, co-founder of the Internet Society and co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocol stack, who is widely regarded as the "father of the Internet."

But communicating across such vast distances will cause days and even weeks of communication delays, thus calling for a hierarchy of inter-Internet protocols, long-haul radio backbones, and inter-planetary gateways.

"You can say that these delays are astronomical - because that is indeed what they are," Cerf said.Numerous umbrella organizations such as the Interplanetary Internet Project (www.IPNsig.org) and Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (www.ccsds.org) serve as coordinating platforms for companies and government labs involved in such research.

Back on planet Earth, a significant expansion of the Net is being driven by mobile devices and convergence. The global Internet population of around 400 million users is expected to cross the one billion mark in a couple of years.) serve as coordinating platforms for companies and government labs involved in such research.

"This is the year - 2001 -- when the worldwide figures for mobile subscribers will surpass the number of landlines. We are seeing a significant convergence between the wireless and Internet worlds," said Hakan Eriksson, VP of research at Ericsson.

"By 2005, most mobile handsets will have microbrowsers," he predicted. Pockets of wireless Internet development such as i-Mode in Japan and WAP in Europe will converge with WAP Release 2001 and GPRS networks.

m-Payment services will effectively create "credit cards with antennas," as mobile Internet devices take on multiple forms: wallets, cameras, navigators and walkmans.

"Just as 1981 marked the advent of GSM and 2001 marks the launch of 3G services, so also 2011 will mark the launch of 4G," Eriksson said.

By the end of next year, over 100 billion SMS messages will be sent worldwide each month, and much richer messages will be facilitated via MMS (multimedia message service).

Ericsson, along with Motorola and Nokia, is promoting a new standard for mobile Instant Messaging (IM) as part of an initiative called Wireless Village to enable interoperability between the instant messaging services of Microsoft and AOL on the one hand and wireless users on the other.

IPv6, the next generation of Internet Protocol, will address some of the problems with the wireless Internet based on the current IPv4, such as insufficient address space and inadequate support for mobile users; it also has provisions for better security and quality of service.

But better standardization between handset makers and inter-provider service agreements across boundaries between technologies will be needed.

And consumer services based on 3G will really take off only with proper revenue-sharing agreements between network operators and content providers, as exemplified by the 30 million subscribers of Japan's wireless Internet operators DoCoMo (i-Mode), KDDI (EZWeb) and J-Phone (J-sky).

While Internet users seem to expect free content in the narrow-band environment, broadband and wireless content are expected to be more promising in terms of drawing service fees.

"In regions like the Middle East and northern Africa, the mobile subscriber base will exceed the landline base by year 2003," said ITU analyst Michael Minges.

Another wave of convergence is being driven by the emergence of VoIP (voice over IP) services. Asian countries like China, South Korea and Malaysia are actively embracing VoIP - telephony over IP networks is now a central plank of telecom development in China -- while many other countries unfortunately are actively barring such services.

But as online resources proliferate across the global Internet, it is becoming increasingly complex and unwieldy for users to refer to Web documents by lengthy URLs; instead, URNs (Universal Resource Names) based on names rather than addresses are being proposed as a solution to the document explosion problem.

"Work is being coordinated on XML-based query languages and meta-data protocols like the Common Name Resolution Protocol (CNRP)," said Leslie Daigle, a Canadian who chairs the URN Working Group.

Challenges lie ahead in designing the NameSpace Identifier (NID) in a manner which can balance complexity with mass uptake, and in configuring the NID registry, naming authority and resolution server.

The electronic commons of the global Internet also throws up a complex host of issues revolving around domain name registration, multilingual name registries, fair regulation, e-commerce taxation, intellectual property, global cyberlaws, cultural preservation, and protection of the public interest.

Numerous international organizations are leaping into the fray here: ICANN, IETF, IAB, OECD, OAS, UNESCO, WTO, ITU, Internews Network, Electronic Privacy Information Centre, Centre for Democracy and Technology, Global Business Dialogue on E-commerce, and Global Internet Project.

"It is becoming difficult for civil society in many countries to take part in the global decision-making for Internet governance," said Jeannette Hoffman, a cyberactivist from Germany.

Music exchange sites like Napster have raised serious questions about the role of intermediaries in the content and entertainment industries, who will have to find out new ways to add value to digital products.

"Huge markets are opening up in digital media management tools for protection of digital rights during content creation, distribution and sales," said Mike Nelson, Internet strategy director at IBM.

Numerous business models for free and paid-for content as well as hybrid configurations will co-exist, he said.

But free expression of ideas must not be threatened on the Net, cautioned John Perry Barlow, former lyricist of the U.S. band Grateful Dead, and a strong proponent of free speech in cyberspace.

He expressed strong reservations about the way the media and technology industries are commoditising creative works with terms like "content" and "consumption."

In either case, sites like Napster which facilitated over 500 million file-sharing transactions per week during some periods may just be the tip of the iceberg, as digital content exchange could continue on an even larger scale on the person-to-person (P2P) level via wireless-enabled personal digital assistants (PDAs).

In the post-dotcom era, concerns remain about business models and the pace of adoption of e-commerce; many companies are now focusing more on making use of existing resources efficiently than on rapidly increasing market share and brand profile.

"But e-mail adoption by even the most conservative businesses shows that e-business is irreversible," according to Greg Adamson, an Internet consultant with ICL in Scotland.

For emerging economies, another complex set of policy issues revolves around overcoming the digital divide.

Numerous such projects for community access, local capacity building, and sustainable knowledge networking were highlighted at the conference: HealthNet for medical workers in Africa, Linux-based SchoolNet in Cameroon which is used by students in the daytime and local community members at night, Pan Asian Networking's telecentres in the Philippines, the AkashGanga online dairy kiosks for milk cooperatives in India, the Gobi Business News network for online media in rural Mongolia, and multi-purpose telecentres for teachers and farmers in Uganda.

Initiatives and organisations active on this front include the G-8 countries' DotForce proposal (www.dotforce.org), WorldSpace Foundation, Pact (www.pactworld.org), Global Knowledge Partnership, and International Institute for Communication and Development (www.iicd.org).

While profit-oriented cybercafes (eg. India's growing chain of cybercafe operators) will help grow the Internet market in urban areas of developing countries, the telecentre model for rural areas may need more funding and support from government agencies and public bodies.

At the level of national IT policy, some of the smaller and more nimble countries of Europe and Asia - most notably Ireland and Singapore - have positioned themselves well as hubs for the global Internet economy, said Rex Hughes, Internet analyst at the University of Washington, which runs the Internet Political Economy Forum (www.ipef.org) along with Cambridge University and the National University of Singapore.

"Both Singapore and Ireland were primarily agricultural in economic makeup just decades ago, but have re-engineered themselves for the knowledge economy - for instance, by investing significantly in broadband Internet infrastructure," said Hughes. They have also produced notable global players in areas like e-learning (SmartForce in Ireland) and soundblaster cards (Singapore).

In Europe, suburban pockets like Kista in Stockholm have positioned themselves as major hubs for innovations in the wireless and broadband Internet.

"India, Brazil and South Africa have now reached critical mass in terms of innovation in low-cost devices and access models," observed Mike Jensen, a network consultant based in South Africa.

Examples include the low cost device Simputer and wireless local loop technology CorDect in India, and affordable smart-cards for health transactions in Brazil.

"But much more cross-fertilising of such ideas is needed between Asia, Africa and Latin America," Jensen advocated.

"There seems to be a crisis of leadership and a policy vacuum when it comes to deciding how to use the Internet and other IT innovations for development in emerging economies," said George Sadowsky, executive director of the Global Internet Policy Initiative (www.gipiproject.org), aimed at injecting consensus and informed decision-making in the currently fragmented policy environment.

Formulating national, regional and global policies to harness the Internet will be a key focus of next year's gathering of Internet professionals, INET 2002.

About the author

Dr. Madanmohan Rao is an Internet consultant and writer based in India. He was formerly the communications director at the United Nations Inter Press Service bureau in New York, and vice president at IndiaWorld Communications in Bombay. Madan graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology at Bombay and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, with an M.S. in computer science and a Ph.D. in communications. He is a frequent speaker on the international conference circuit, and has given talks and lectures on Internet-related issues in about 35 countries. He has worked with online services in the U.S., Brazil, and India.

He is the editor of INOMY.com (a leading Webzine about the Internet economy in India), and is on the board of editors of the magazines Electronic Markets (www.electronicmarkets.org - published from Switzerland) and On The Internet (published by the Internet Society - www.isoc.org). Madan is also on the board of directors/advisors of yellow pages firm IndiaReference.com, steel portal SteelRX.com, investment bank CoolStartups.com, Web solutions company 4Cplus.com, content services provider FridayCorporation.com, and software development portal SoftwareDioxide.com.

The author can be reached at madan@inomy.com.

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