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Internet Evolution

Question 4: Internet Evolution Trends

The question that follows also posits the idea that reduced protocol diversity may lead to a desirable simplification of the network stack. In this sense, the trend may continue, and this may be positive.

Can the trends we have picked out from the data tell us anything about the likely future for the Internet? Are the data highlighting aspects of the Internet that are evolving in a constant, discernible direction towards some identifiable, future-networking paradigm? For some, the potential for further innovation at the network layer of the protocol stack is now over.

What do these observable trends in Internet evolution mean for the future of the Internet?

Jon Crowcroft: It’s bad news for IPv6 and TCP changes and other transport protocol deployments but it’s not bad news for the big picture, necessarily. You would need a different set of studies to determine that. Some study of mobile networks might be useful too.

Internet growth is a certainty, but expecting innovation to continue to be possible across the spectrum of networking technologies is, perhaps, unrealistic. Wireless and energy-efficient networking may be examples of important areas of future innovation.

Bill St. Arnaud: I think the Internet will continue to expand and grow in resiliency. The wireless and green Internet will probably be the next major area of innovation.

As we have already observed, the most discernible Internet constant seems to be change itself. Accepting that, then perhaps nothing we have observed and discussed earlier is a trend that can’t or won’t be swept away in time.

Joe Touch: I don’t think they mean anything other than things are changing as they always have, converging as they always have, and diverging as they always have.

Kenjiro Cho: We believe in diversity for evolution in the face of environmental changes. As the Internet matures, we see more diversity in higher levels than the network level. However, we also need to sustain the diversity at the network level in order to have possibilities for innovation at the network level.

Technologies come and go; we should not overreact to individual trends. Most trends are not so harmful to the diversity. After all, the Internet ecosystem is fairly robust against turbulence. However, some may lead to irreversible impacts on diversity. For example, widespread firewalls and NATs have considerably reduced diversity in port usage and in communication initiation styles. In general, any form of filtering is, once introduced, hard to remove. We have to consider its consequences seriously beforehand.

Despite all of this change however, the Internet will remain a technological construct within a wider societal context. Therefore, as the Internet evolves and matures, getting the regulatory balance right is of growing and fundamental importance. Openness and neutrality are key to safeguarding the future for the Internet as a technology underpinning human development.

Geoff Huston: Any large, engineered system ossifies over time. Incumbents attempt to entrench their position into one of dominance and attempt to erect barriers to new entrants and competition. Innovation is a critical lever in terms of balancing incumbents with competitive new entrants. Innovation is the critical factor that allows competition to compete on equal terms with high-volume incumbents. The critical attribute of the Internet that allows the continued entrance of innovation is the network’s openness and neutrality. As long as consumer devices are sufficiently open that consumers can access novel applications and the networks are sufficiently neutral that new applications run as well as any other application then we can be confident that the future of the Internet is assured.

As a source of considerable concern, these assertions are not true of today’s Internet. We are seeing the rise of the ‘locked’ user device, the threats being placed on the neutrality of the carrier with respect to content and the constraint pressure being placed on the carrier to drop its neutral role and undertake the role of content inspector and copyright enforcer. These pressures will ossify the Internet and make it incredibly resistant to further innovation and change. This will not play out well. In the same way that the telephone operators suppressed innovation and change in their fiefdoms in the 1970s and 1980s while the rest of the industry was making gigantic strides in the use of computers to create innovative service offerings, the deliberate inability of the phone companies to undertake any realistic form of change to their comfortable monopoly implied that the pressure for innovative change simply increased, and when it finally crashed through in the late 1990s the resultant change was revolutionary rather than evolutionary, and I suspect that it’s taken us most of the last decade to sort out the resultant mess!

I would like to think that the Internet offers the ability to operate a more sustainable business model where the obvious advantages offered though sheer scale of operation and stability of technology are offset by the constant pressure of innovation and change. Ultimately in such an environment we see the end user being the beneficiary, due to both the competitive pressures driving efficient service delivery and innovation driving new service-delivery models. However to make such a model self-sustaining calls for a delicate touch on the regulatory levers. Too much in the direction of regulatory laissez faire results in the formation of cartels and de facto monopolies in the industry, while an over-enthusiastic regulatory regime repels entrepreneurship and innovation and ultimately competition. I suspect that we have yet to learn the ‘right’ settings in this space, and at the moment we are teetering towards the creation of a new set of industry monopolies. Efforts directed to their dismantling will absorb much of our attention in the coming years.

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