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Public internet threatened by private telcos

The net as 'Government regulated monopoly'

What will the internet look like in 20 years? No one knows. But this morning at the Stanford Summit, an annual tech industry conference in Palo Alto, a panel of Silicon Valley experts laid down a few guesses.

The trio of big-name panelists - Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim, HP personal systems group CTO Phil McKinney, and Stanford University electrical engineering and computer science professor Nick McKeown - refused to make any bold predictions, as big-name panelists so often refuse to do. But they did highlight what they see as the obvious internet trouble spots sure to spark major change over the next several years.

For one, they all agreed that internet wireless access must improve to a point where it's ubiquitous. "Things are going to be a lot more wireless," Bechtolsheim said. "What has been missing is mobile wireless that works across the country - for the internet, not just for cell phone service."

He then held up his iPhone as an example of where things are going - yes, he had it on stage, and yes, he held it up - calling it the first mobile device that lets him "use a real browser to get real search results on the real internet." But we couldn’t help but see his personal Apple status symbol as proof that the wireless internet is still in the dark ages.

Naturally, we all know that "things are going to be a lot more wireless" in the years to come. The question is how this will play out, but Bechtolsheim wouldn’t predict which particular technologies will lead the charge – though he did tip his hat to WiMAX.

Along similar lines, the distinguished trio insisted that security, privacy, and spam rates need improving in a big way. "If there's an area where the internet will look very differently in 15 years, it's the area of user identity and privacy," McKeown said. "From a technology point of view, a plumbing point of view, something has to change." And there was some chatter about software-as-a-service taking over the world, with Bechtolsheim making the obligatory Google apps and Salesforce.com references.

But the most interesting discussion was sparked by McKeown, who said that we will soon see a change in the way the internet’s infrastructure is paid for. With telcos like AT&T and Verizon refusing to foot the bill for the public internet without ample compensation, things will soon come to a head.

"Today, although people providing applications and service across the internet are making lots of money and the people providing the equipment – the Cisco’s of the world – are making lots of money, the people providing the infrastructure are not making money off the infrastructure itself," he said. "My understanding that there is not a single public internet service provider in the United States who is making money from providing public internet service. The public internet is subsidized by private networks and telephony, and we all know what’s happening to telephony."

One possibility, he guessed, is the internet collapsing into "a government-regulated monopoly" where one company controls the whole thing.

Likewise, McKinney said there were serious economic barriers to scaling up the current internet infrastructure so that it can accommodate the public's growing taste for things like video. Just turning on the country's "dark fiber" – the unused fiber pipes sitting under our streets - would require $3tn, McKinney argued. "What's going to be the economic catalyst?" he asked. "What's the business model that's going give the infrastructure providers the incentive to go light that dark fiber?"

Bechtolsheim wasn't quite so pessimistic. He thinks that $3tn figure is ridiculous. As the demand for that dark fiber increases, he argued, that price will come down to "a few billion dollars."

Plus, he has faith in his iPhone. Holding it up once again, Bechtolsheim said that large-screen mobile devices like the Apple handheld have the power to challenge the wired internet. Of course, AT&Ts and Verizon have a say in the wireless internet too. ®

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