David Farber, chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission, has a promise for those stunned by the pace of change in Internet developments over the past 10 years: In the decade to come, they will face "an even wilder ride."
New technology will bring forth dramatic changes to the economics behind the Internet as well as the backbone networks that deliver the Internet to homes and businesses, Farber noted during a recent workshop at Wharton, hosted by the Emerging Technologies Management Research Program, the SEI Center for Advanced Studies and Management, and the Wharton e-Business Initiative. Yet even as we anticipate new technologies that can alter the course of our daily lives, he cautioned, there are still problems that must be resolved before such dramatic changes can be made.
In addition to his appointment to the FCC, Farber is a professor of telecommunications systems in the computer and information science department at Penn Engineering. He was a key witness for the U.S. Department of Justice in its recent case against Microsoft.
Some observers refer to the next major technology trend for the Internet as "Internet Anywhere," Farber noted during his remarks. "It's a reference to the expectation that upcoming technological innovation will take businesses and consumers to 'easy ubiquity,' making the Internet and other networks accessible from virtually anywhere. For example, new technology means that the bandwidth on a single strand of fiber will be roughly equivalent to the bandwidth on the entire backbone network in the U.S. today. That means "we're in for a lot of change."
Many of the innovations Farber referred to are already apparent: More homes and businesses are accessing the Internet via broadband DSL or cable connections--a vast improvement from dial-up modems; mobile technologies are developing, particularly in Europe and Japan, that will enable anyone to 'connect' without wires; and Bluetooth wireless communications technology (being developed jointly by Intel and Microsoft) carries with it the potential to connect virtually every part of life--from the home security system to personal banking.
Farber was quick to point out, however, that many problems lie ahead for businesses, consumers, and especially policy makers. "The biggest issue right now is security. The economy is based more and more on the Internet, and there are real concerns about the infrastructure--how easy it is (to penetrate), how stable it is and how vulnerable it is to attack." Recent examples of security breaches have involved customers of Western Union and AOL. Earlier this year, hackers brought down the Web site of The New York Times. "(People at The New York Times) should consider themselves lucky," said Farber. "They got away with just a warning. Imagine what would have happened if those people decided to plant (counterfeit) articles about the economy."
Farber voiced fears about the combination of growing connectivity and the lack of a tightly secured infrastructure: "We may be building an empire on a very slippery basis, and we need to pay serious attention to that," he noted.
Privacy is another issue for policy makers to contend with as "too many small, hungry companies out there show little sensitivity to long-term payoffs and much more sensitivity to short-term payoffs...Networks tie personal records together, and people worry about the privacy of their data. If I happen to lose this," Farber said holding up his cellular phone, "what keeps someone from accessing my bank accounts and health records?"
The no-spectrum specter
Farber also discussed concerns tied to emerging trends in the wireless industry. "The U.S. has a big problem. We don't have spectrum. The rest of the world is now allocating spectrum. They have an additional band, so that it's reasonable to start talking about broadband delivery. In this country right now, we're not giving out any additional spectrum. That's because television broadcasters currently occupy spectrum space. A potential solution would be to move them into digital, but no one wants to bid on spectrum they may never get, or might get by 2006. It doesn't sound like a good deal." How big is this problem? It is one of the reasons the U.S. lags behind the Japan and Western Europe in cellular technology, Farber said, adding that the Japanese, for example, will be on third-generation handsets while the U.S. will be on its first.
"The bottom line," he noted, "is that we have technology coming out of our ears" that will inevitably come face-to-face with regulatory issues. "Congress will try to pass laws, particularly about privacy. Governments can and will exercise control over the Internet. We might see governments coming together and starting to establish rules for the Internet, particularly regarding content."
With regards to the regulation of spectrum, Farber conceded that while something must be done to utilize the spectrum space currently occupied by broadcasters, it is unlikely that changes will be made anytime soon, particularly because of the strong broadcast lobby in Washington. Farber tried to illustrate the challenge that faces policy makers. "Regulation is like driving a car at 100 mph with 50-foot vision; we're a little out of control."
He hopes to deliver a better understanding about technology during his tenure at the FCC but knows that Washington still moves at the pace of the old economy. "I could fill up a small room with all the technologists in Washington and still have a lot of free space?It would be useful to have a model to help us understand what happens in this field. It's a little different than steel. Regulation takes around three years. How many Internet generations does that amount to?"
Despite the technical and regulatory issues associated with it, new technology will bring people even closer together, make information more accessible and extend our capabilities further, Farber said. He offered an example of what he saw as the potential for the future. "The next huge thing will be the telecommuters who live where they want to live and work where there they want to work. There is no reason why I shouldn't be able to live in New Zealand and work in Silicon Valley. Who knows? Maybe then I'll show up to work more."
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