Will there be a next-generation network?

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recently held a workshop titled “Next-Generation Networks: What, When and How?” The assumption in many of the presentations was that there would be a new IP network in the future that would augment and then replace the Internet. It was an interesting view – one that is not unexpected from the traditional telephone companies, but one that brings a strong sense of deja…vu.

The goals of the workshop included:

– Understand the service and technology drivers for NGN.

– Explore the emerging new-generation service challenges.

– Examine how NGN and the Internet are complementary.

– Identify key standards needed, and discuss how standards gaps can be filled.

The presentations, all of which are at www.nwfusion.com (DocFinder: 6834), were mostly by representatives of traditional telephone companies, or companies that supply them with equipment. A few presentations by ITU-T study group chairs and others, including one about what is going on in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), filled out the agenda. Many of the presentations were quite well done but, to me, represented a view of modern data networking of which I am not familiar. (To paraphrase Bobby Jones talking about fellow golf great Jack Nicklaus . . . though I do not think the network described is quite as real as Mr. Nicklaus.)

One theme that showed up in a number of presentations was that, because the Internet was not robust, reliable, secure or predictable, the carriers were going to have to develop a new IP-based network that would run parallel to it. This new network would be all the things that the Internet is not (at least in some minds) and thus would attract business away from the Internet to an environment that one presentation said would have to include per-session billing for use. The assumption is that this new network, which is the NGN of the workshop title, eventually might replace the existing Internet.

This is an idea that does not want to die. I ran into it at a conference I attended in the early 1990s. I was on a panel that previewed the recent ITU-T workshop. The question asked of us was something like, “Is the Internet the model for the national network infrastructure?” (the name in those days for NGN). One of my co-panellists argued that the network of the future would be ATM-based, and the other said it would be cable TV based. At that time I said, in essence, that the Internet was the network of the future and it was too late to replace it.

A decade or so later I said the same thing in the ITU-T workshop. I still do not think that the Internet is reliably crappy enough to drive the creation of a new network. I might not be right, time will tell that, but at least I’m consistent.

Disclaimer: Consistency turns out to be only a temporary condition in the context of organizations of Harvard’s age, but the above is my consistent opinion.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.