In the middle of a revolution

The Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council is in the process of releasing its latest report on the present and future of data networking. This new volume, the fourth in a series, finally admits that the Internet is both the present and the future.

The first book in the series, “Toward a National Research Network,” published in 1988, pushed for government funding of Internet research-although at that time, the Internet was a limited network connecting educational, research and government sites. Six years later, the second volume, “Realizing the Information Future: The Internet and Beyond,” described an Internet moving beyond its research heritage and explored the potential impacts.

The next volume came only two years later, in 1996. It was called “Unpredictable Certainty: Information Infrastructure Through 2000,” and saw the Internet as the precursor of a national, and at some point global, information infrastructure.

The latest volume, “The Internet’s Coming of Age,” has figured out that, at least for now, what comes after the Internet is the Internet. This is a somewhat lightweight book, tending a bit toward paranoia rather than Pollyanna. It provides a good overview of the Internet of today, and issues some well thought out warnings of where the government could help too much.

CSTB reports, such as the ones in this series, are the products of committees whose members are carefully chosen to represent the various interested constituencies and thus tend not to be all that bold in their recommendations. This latest volume is no exception. But it does go further than the previous book in the series and actually has some specific recommendations.

The committee says it focused on a number of specific areas: the Internet’s design; scalability and reliability; connections between its parts; its conflict with the traditional telecommunications world; and its social policy issues. The committee warns against the potential of network-based devices such as firewalls and network address translators to inhibit the creation of new Internet applications, and paints the picture of the current inter-ISP connections with a worried mind.

The committee worries quite a bit that governments will try to apply telecom regulations to the Internet rather than “reconsidering old rationales for regulation.”

The group says the principal conclusion of its study is that “the Internet is fundamentally healthy” and any problems the group found are best addressed by evolutionary changes in the Internet. The group did not find a reason to start over.

The report says we are in the middle of the Internet revolution. I’m not sure we are that far along, but I do agree with the committee that the view from here is, at best, foggy and that too much government help will more likely run us aground than steer a true course.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University