The `Father Of The Net' Has A Problem Child

Vint Cerf is wrestling with runaway growth on MCI's network

Amid the clutter in Vinton G. Cerf's office are a number of wood and brass alligators. Cerf, an early developer of the Internet and now a senior vice-president at MCI Communications Corp., says they have been given to him by friends over the years. Why? It stems from an old story about the engineer who is sent out to drain a swamp but finds it infested with alligators. He's so busy fighting off the gators that he forgets his original mission.

For the 53-year-old engineer, the swamp these days is the Internet. And as Cerf puts it, "I'm up to my ass in alligators." What's snapping at him is the explosive growth of I-way traffic. In the 23 months since MCI launched its first commercial Internet service, data traffic on the company's network has exploded by 5,600%, at times far outpacing MCI's ability to keep up. Cerf is now supervising a massive upgrade of MCI's Internet backbone in an effort to keep one step ahead of the surging traffic. One of the eventualities he has to plan for is voice traffic--so-called Internet calling--which requires lots of capacity. "It's very much in the cards for MCI to be involved in this," Cerf says.

MISSTEPS. For MCI, the Internet effort is critical to its scheme for becoming a premier carrier of data as well as voice. The company hopes to build a $100 million Internet business into a $2 billion operation by 2000. But the flood of traffic earlier this year caused massive congestion and delays for many users. One misstep: MCI aggressively sold fast connections that, until April, ran at the same speed as the company's backbone network--the fiber-optic systems that carry traffic across the nation. Just as if many garden hoses were feeding into one hose of the same size, when usage spiked, the system was overwhelmed. Now the company must prove its network is fast and reliable enough to handle the demand.

MCI has had other stumbles on the Net, too. Its now-defunct Internet shopping service, launched in March, 1995, attracted few shoppers. In January, the company announced it wanted to sell much of its investment in iGuide, a joint venture with News Corp. to build a consumer Web site around content from the media giant. iGuide was one of the few tangible results of MCI's $1.35 billion investment in News Corp. announced in May, 1995. "We don't know how to make money on the content side," concedes MCI President Gerald H. Taylor. "If we figure it out, we'll do it."

Instead, MCI is focusing more intently on the Internet needs of business customers. Since June, Cerf's crew has spent $60 million to strengthen MCI's backbone. It now moves data at up to 155 megabits per second, a threefold increase over its earlier rate, making it the fastest commercial network running. And as Internet applications grow, MCI plans to up that speed.

CATCHING THE BUG. At the same time, Cerf is overseeing the design and construction of an international Internet setup. In partnership with British Telecommunications PLC, which holds a 20% stake in MCI, the long-distance company is creating a $200 million network for traffic originating in Europe and the Pacific Rim. Without the upgrade, Cerf figures MCI would hit the capacity wall on international traffic by the end of this year.

MCI needs more than massive pipes, however. It must also give customers more reason to use those lines. That's why it has struck an alliance with chipmaker Intel Corp. and Internet router manufacturer Cisco Systems Inc. to bring business applications such as videoconferencing, 3-D graphics, and possibly voice calling to the Internet. Cerf's technicians are tweaking MCI's network so that by next year it can handle complex "real time" jobs.

Cerf, once an Internet idealist, warns that such hot applications won't work if the current practice of flat-rate pricing continues. That's anathema to other veterans who fret about limitations on Net access. But Cerf argues that carriers such as MCI must start charging by how much data customers ship on their line. "Otherwise," he says, "the hill is overgrazed, there's no more grass, and the sheep die."

He knows the state of the Net as well as anybody--having been there before there was any grass, or even much of a hill. He grew up in Los Angeles and at age 15, caught the computer bug when he visited the defense company lab where a family friend was programming a computer system to track foreign aircraft. The three rooms of computing equipment, complete with glowing 20-inch cathode-ray tubes, sparked his imagination. "It was very Dr. Strangelove," he laughs now.

Moderately deaf since birth, Cerf met his wife, Ingrid, when their mutual hearing-aid dealer fixed them up in 1965. The couple has two grown sons.

BUILDING BLOCKS. It was at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1968, while he was a graduate student in computer science, that Cerf began his networking career. He was part of a team developing the predecessor to the Internet, called the Arpanet. Six years later, while teaching at Stanford, he and Robert E. Kahn, then with the Defense Dept.'s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), devised what became the TCP/IP protocol--the basic building block for Internet communication.

Cerf went on to become even more immersed in the Net. In 1976, he joined DARPA and took over management of the new network. He did a stint at MCI in the early 1980s before rejoining Kahn, who had founded a private research firm, in 1986. MCI lured him back two years ago.

With Internet mania in full swing, MCI began billing Cerf as the father of the Internet. That irks many former colleagues, who insist the title overstates his contribution, and Cerf admits that he's not entirely comfortable with the tag. Still, if that label is to be worn by anyone, he says, he's not a bad choice. "For the first nine years of its life, I was the guy who felt responsible for the success of this enterprise," he argues.

He still feels responsible. As one of the largest Internet carriers, MCI's actions have a tremendous impact on the network's health. So it's pretty important that he find a way out of the swamp.

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