In 1973, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn wrote the software code that helped spawn the Internet. Dubbed Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), it enables computers to send data to each other as if they were part of one large network.
Three decades later, Cerf, now senior vice-president for technology strategy at MCI (MCIP), is still working to expand the Internet. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Washington Correspondent Catherine Yang about the future of the Internet and U.S. technological prowess. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What are the biggest changes we're seeing in the Internet now?
A: The convergence of the Internet to transport all media, voice, video, and data is really happening, especially with voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). It allows us to mix modalities of communications into a uniform and rich medium. If you and I use VoIP, we can communicate with each other smoothly, moving from voice to text to video. It's more a question of activating the software at the endpoints where the participants sit.
Q: What Internet improvements projects are you working on now?
A: Without claiming to be inventing anything, I'm encouraging the adoption of IP Version 6 -- the next standard for IP. The number of unique IP addresses in [the current] IP Version 4 is 4.3 billion. For IP version 6, it's 380 trillion trillion trillion addresses.
IP Version 6 was standardized nearly 10 years ago. But it has been slow to be adopted and installed. Now we're seeing serious traction. Customers are asking to run it. In Japan and China, there are large numbers of people needing address space. As there are more IP-enabled mobile devices, such as video games, set-top boxes, automobiles, and sensors, there's a serious motivation [to adopt IP Version 6].
Q: We've heard you're working on a way to extend Internet-type communications into space. When will that become a real possibility?
A: I've been working with the Jet Propulsion Lab since 1998 to standardize deep-space communications protocols. For those [space] missions that are already in place and have fulfilled their basic mission responsibility, they must have on board additional communications capabilities to get information to the ground.
We're trying to standardize communications in space, so as new missions are launched, they can use the older missions' assets. It's like plugging into the Internet and communicating with 4,000 other devices on the Internet because it's standardized. We want to run a full InterPlaNet protocol suite on the Mars Telecom Orbiter in 2009.
Q: The U.S. ranks 16th in the world in broadband penetration. Are we doomed to be followers of South Korea, Japan, and Scandanavia in both broadband and wireless technologies?
A: Next-generation CDMA [wireless technology] is coming out of Qualcomm (QCOM). Second, the Internet itself provides opportunities to invent new things at edge of network. We, along with other countries, are vigorous with new applications. There's very little new innovation in the network itself. I anticipate edge innovations to arise.
Q: What can we do to catch up in broadband?
A: The rapid uptake of broadband capacity in countries like Korea or Singapore has been in part [because of] the way people live or where they live -- in high-density dwellings. It's easier to attach broadband, because you bring fiber to the building and run risers by Ethernet.
Running broadband to a farm 20 miles from the [phone company's] central office is very expensive. We have to see thinking about subsidies or other ways to defray the cost, or alternatively, more initiatives in the municipal area to create better infrastructure. Municipal networks, for me, are an exciting proposition. I'm a big proponent of this idea of creating infrastructure where there wasn't any before.
Q: If we continue to lag in broadband penetration, will the U.S. eventually see a decline in productivity?
A: I readily admit that having broadband allows new applications to happen, as opposed to what would happen if it weren't there. About 85% to 90% of video on TV is prerecorded. The implications of that are profound in the context of low-cost networking and storage. If you have a high-capacity storage device, you can store one hour of high-definition TV and watch it later.
I don't see that we're doomed. We have to be very creative about the business models we morph ourselves into because we're going to need new business models to overcome the side effects of things becoming commoditized. We at MCI are conscious of that. We're selling value-added services, new security features, and digital media production.
Q: In 1998, you had a cameo role as the President's Chief of Staff in Gene Roddenberry's TV series: Earth: The Final Conflict. Are you an aspiring actor?
A: That was very fun. I had one line. Now, I'm waiting to be cast as Darth Fiber.