THE FUTURE OF THE INTERNET
Sandra McKay, Southeastern Louisiana University
The purpose of this paper is to examine possibilities regarding the future of the Internet.
First, the current stale of the Internet as a data transport system is discussed, along with
some attendant problems. Then, several emerging initiatives and network level services
are explored.The paper concludes with some speculations about future changes to the
The implications of the Internet are far reaching for both consumer and business users.
However, the actual direction, scope, and impact of the Internet are uncertain. No one can
predict accurately what the end result will be. Even Microsoft's Bill Gates believes that
its nearly impossible to determine the future of the Internet (Carter 1996). But
speculations can be made based on current technological research and advances. The
purpose of this paper is to examine possibilities regarding the future of the Internet. First,
the current state of the Internet as a data transport system is discussed. Then, several
emerging initiatives and network level services are explored. The paper concludes with
some speculations about future changes to the Internet.
The Internet has become part of the American consciousness. It is firmly established as a
worldwide communication medium. Indeed, Internet "gurus" claim that it is the seminal
communication phenomenon of this century, with the potential impact on our lives
rivaling that of television and the telephone. However, the Internet must overcome
several hurdles to become a more user-friendly information source.
The pace at which electronic transmission can occur is at the root of Internet progress.
The Internet is too slow for many activities. With good reason, many say that "www"
really means "World Wide Wait." The slow transfer of information is attributed to a
number of factors. One is the slowness of user access. Currently, the most common
Internet connection for consumer users is some type of telephone modem. The speed
range varies from 28,000 kbps to 56,600 kbps in most situations. The results of one
survey indicated that more than 63% of all Internet users access the Internet with the
slowest of modems (Carter 1996). Most business use is through a main server with
networked terminals using Ethernet cards, which have a transfer rate of 10
megabits/second. In addition, slow servers, routers, and Internet service providers (ISPs)
contribute to slow loading and delayed IP response. This is due, in part, to the system's
1960s technology, which has been stretched to a near breaking point. Internet
"brownouts" suggest that the Internet is incapable of quickly processing massive amounts
of information, particularly the type that might be associated with commerce, an activity
for which the Internet was never intended.
The biggest change in the Internet over the short term will be bandwidth (Goldsborough
1998). Bandwidth is a reference to the total physical dimension of cables carrying data to
and from the Internet. Bandwidth will become larger because it is the only bottleneck
preventing the really productive things from happening on the Internet. Those productive
things include everything from uncomplicated, widespread access to the Internet, to
sound, full-motion video, and teleconferencing--all of which are possible now, but greatly
hampered by the Internet's lack of speed.
ISPs are working to upgrade the speed of Internet access lines by improving core routing
links. Modem makers, too, have upgraded their products, some of which are capable of
running at high speeds- however, most Internet users do not have devices that can tap this
high access speed. Among the emerging higher-speed access methods are Integrated
Services Digital Network (ISDN), cable modems, and the 56K bps modem. ISDN
requires a special phone line, a special ISDN adapter, and a ISDN line usage charge
(Dutcher 1997). At 144Kbps, ISDN provides higher-speed Internet access, but the
trappings associated with ISDN have thus far hindered its success in the residential
Another way to increase bandwidth is the use of coaxial cable access for the Internet,
which will provide the fastest connection yet. The cable modem consists of a box that
hooks in to pre-existing coax lines that currently broadcast cable television channels. The
box is then connected to a personal computer through an Ethernet card that can handle
the speed of download. For example, MediaOne offers high-speed Internet access to
cable TV subscribers for less than $40 per month. The service is 300Kbps upstream and
1.5Mbps downstream. MediaOne provides a modem that plugs into the TV cable, into an
AC outlet, and into an Ethernet card in the PC. Internet access is continuous--no dialing,
no busy signals, no logging in, no hissing and screeching (Metcalfe 1998). But cable
modem access is not without its problems. For one thing, cable service providers are not
widely cited for their prompt or consistent customer service. In addition, two technicians
are required to install the equipment: the regular "cable guy," who runs the coax line and
installs the modem; and a computer technician, who installs the Ethernet card and insures
that the modem is communicating with the computer and the ISP. Further, if the cable
company has not upgraded to handle a digital two-way feed (most have not), an
additional dedicated phone line is required for data upload (Alsop 1997).
Of the three higher-speed access methods, the one that has the most reasonable chance of
becoming widely accepted in the consumer market is the 56K bps modem. While there
are two different, competing and incompatible types of 56K modems, they use analog
access lines, and most of the burden of special equipment and special access is on the
service provider. Mass-market consumers' buying behavior for Internet services is driven
less by technology than by price and convenience. This is the reason that ISDN has not
yet been successful and that cable modem access will be slow to diffuse.
What may ultimately guide the Internet's future is how much money it can save for those
who use it. Companies have already discovered a number of ways to cut costs via the
Internet. For example, the posting of business-to-business electronic catalogs not only
provides the ability to make up-to-the minute revisions but also includes the upfront
savings in paper and printing costs. Email, another cost cutter, with its abillty to attach
files and transmit information anywhere in the world for the price of a local phone call,
saves a company hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on size and communication
As bandwidth increases, it will be easier to transmit not only sound, but full-motion real-
time video. Business applications for this include desktop video conferences.
Videoconferencing will move from being a novelty used by few to a reality demanded by
many. Jerky pictures and delayed sound will be replaced with clear images that move
nearly at real time. This will reduce both travel and long distance telephone expenses.
Companies are establishing Intranets to handle business-to-business transactions. For
example, IBM's Intranet provides 77,000 agency buyers with on-line transaction
capability, including browsing and information collections through automatic order
fulfillment. It also provides a venue for promotion and new product introductions
(Stevens 1997). IBM's Intranet has reduced not only their costs but also their customers'
cost, at about 5% of sales. In addition, the $60,000 annually that IBM once spent on
catalogs is now devoted to the web site or is saved. Other benefits include a reduction in
cycle time from six weeks to 14 days and a drop in error rate from 14% to 2% (Stevens
Technological improvements promise to reduce the price of computers themselves.
Computers that depend on a network for their operating capabilities, and may retail for as
much as 80%-90% less than a well-equipped PC, are now in development. Known
variously as "information appliances" or "Internet toasters," network computers feature a
slimmed-down operating system, no hard drive and no software. Word-processing,
spreadsheet and other programs needed to make them perform like a PC are downloaded
from the Internet or other networked source. Nothing extra is needed to allow users to
browse the Internet. Hundreds of software and hardware makers nationwide have been
involved in the effort.
Further down the line is the potential for a multi-faceted electronic future revolving
around interactive media--combining television, computer and the Internet into one
diverse but organized medium. This is a very real possibility. For one thing, Microsoft's
Bill Gates believes that interactive media will happen and will arrive via the TV set and a
very high-speed connection to the Internet through cable-television wires. And he has
invested both his company's resources and efforts to make it a reality. In 1997, Microsoft
purchased Web TV, a start- up company that builds set-top boxes that connect TVs to the
Web, and paid $1 billion for 11.5% of cable giant Comcast (Ramo 1997). In addition,
Microsoft has engaged in talks with a number of leading cable operators, such as Time
Warner, Inc. and U.S. West, to create high-speed Internet access (Banks 1997). With
interactive media, the Internet will look something like the one futurists have described
for years: fast, simple and stuffed with content--everything from movies to E-banking. A
recent profile of Microsoft suggests that the company's current interactive strategy could
lead to a world where everything from games, information sources, commerce, movies,
television, advertising and more will be available in interactive mode.
Currently, scientists and engineers are working to perfect the concept of quantum
computing. Quantum computing involves molecular-sized devices that make use of
quantum-physics effects such as "spin." A molecule or atomic particle's spin creates a
small magnetic field that can be oriented in one direction or another, allowing the device
to exhibit "on" and "off" states without using an electric current. In theory, molecules
could act as binary devices that could store data or work together to process digital logic,
just as CPUs and integrated circuits do. Quantum mechanics that particles can be in
multiple quantum states at the same time, as if each address in a RAM chip could store
the values 1 and 0 simultaneously. Since this would enable multiple processes to occur at
once, a quantum computer could effectively act like a supercomputer using parallel
processing. The researchers' challenge was to find a substance whose characteristics lend
themselves to quantum computing. A material with quantum effects that are large enough
to be measured easily while remaining immune from exterior forces that could drown
them out. The researchers' break-through came with the discovery of such a material--
manganese-12 (Sherman 1997). An example will illustrate the potential power of
quantum computing. It takes between one and two months for the most powerful existing
computer to factor a number with 130 digits, but a perfect quantum computer could
accomplish the same task in a fraction of a second. In the distant future, perhaps very
distant, quantum computers could change everything we know about computing today.
While Microsoft directs its resources into the outer reaches of current Internet
capabilities---interactive media---and researchers direct their efforts into the even farther
outer reaches of quantum computing, millions of smaller players are likely to see a faster
Internet in the future and one that is more accessible and cost efficient to use in a variety
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