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Panel: Networks getting crowded

Panelists at an Internet World discussion address issues of bandwidth and performance in the face of massive Net growth.

LOS ANGELES--The invasion of "silicon cockroaches" is threatening to overwhelm our computer networks, an executive said at a lively Internet World panel discussion here today.

Panelists Alan Taffel, UUNet's vice president of marketing and business development; Jeanette Symons, founder and chief technical officer of Ascend Communications; and Netcom chairman David Garrison addressed issues of network bandwidth and performance in the coming years.

Taffel kicked off the 45-minute discussion with warnings about the proliferation of computer chips--"silicon cockroaches"--and their insatiable demands for network capacity.

"Faxes, cell phones, PCs with modems--they now drive and eat bandwidth, and they're hungry and greedy," Taffel said. The explosion of data-based communications over networks has dramatically sped up Internet growth, he added.

"Three years ago, we were proud that the Internet doubled every year," Taffel said. "Now it doubles every three to six months."

That enormous growth has network service and equipment providers scrambling to keep up and reacting to the latest developments in content--video service, for example--that further increase bandwidth needs.

"We sit back, shaking in nervousness, waiting to see what new applications are coming out to break the network," said Ascend's Symons, with a laugh. Ascend makes modems and other hardware to access and build the network infrastructure.

Video was No. 1 on Netcom chairman Garrison's list of "wild cards" certain to affect future network performance. "It will have an enormous whipsaw effect," he said.

That uncertainty is compounded by the fact that video services--from video phones in the 1960s to movies-on-demand in the 1980s--have gone bust, the panel noted. The speakers were equally wary of the promise of cable modems and the high-bandwidth services they promise. Unfortunately, there were no representatives from that industry to defend themselves. (See related story)

Another trend that is hard to predict but certain to have an effect is Internet telephone service, which is beginning to offer low-cost long distance calls with promises of high quality.

Garrison also noted that the "cockroach" problem won't go away. Network companies need to keep a close eye on future chip designs and how such devices use bandwidth. Another variable is the tradeoff between transporting and storing data. Regional providers are mulling over the possibility of keeping large caches of data on local servers to minimize long distance network traffic, Garrison said.

"That's a lot like what Yahoo is doing now with its various regional services," noted panel moderator Jack Powers, vice president of conferences for Mecklermedia.

As with most industry discussions these days, the panelists touched upon government regulation. UU Net's Taffel noted that IP-network telephone calls are so cheap in part because there aren't any access fees, but that could change. (At a recent high-tech investment gathering in San Francisco, however, President Clinton pledged to support legislation that would ban Internet taxation for six years.)

Sending sound and video over the Internet is more likely to catch on in places where traditional access to those services is hard to find or expensive, said Ascend's Symons.

Because of the dizzying array of service possibilities--local or national ISPs offering phone services, video, or Internet guides in various combinations--Garrison scoffed at the idea of a shakeout in the ISP market.

"That's hogwash," he said. "In a few years, there will be twice the number there is today, but they'll become more specialized" according to vertical interest groups, geographical location, or levels of user expertise.

One future trend the panelists all envisioned was higher costs to end users as more services are added to the Internet.

"Eventually, somebody will pay for bandwidth," said Symons. "Somebody's installing equipment, somebody's putting in fiber...you'll have to pay somebody."

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