The Future of the Internet

As this paper describes, the architecture of the Internet has always been driven by a core group of designers, but the form of that group has changed as the number of interested parties has grown. With the success of the Internet has come a proliferation of stakeholders – stakeholders now with an economic as well as an intellectual investment in the network.

We now see, in the debates over control of the domain name space and the form of the next generation IP addresses, a struggle to find the next social structure that will guide the Internet in the future. The form of that structure will be harder to find, given the large number of concerned stakeholders.

At the same time, the industry struggles to find the economic rationale for the large investment needed for the future growth, for example to upgrade residential access to a more suitable technology. If the Internet stumbles, it will not be because we lack for technology, vision, or motivation. It will be because we cannot set a direction and march collectively into the future.

A Brief History of the Internet, Barry Leiner, Vinton Cerf, David Clark, et al, 20 Feb 98.

Just as the Internet revolutionized how the world accessed information and communicated through the 1990’s, the ongoing development in speed, bandwidth, and functionality will continue to cause fundamental changes to how our world operates for decades to come. Some of the major trends shaping the future of the Internet are summarized below, along with extrapolated predictions:

  • Globalism. The future of the Internet global distribution of information and knowledge at lower and lower cost will continue to lift the world community for generations to come. People will have access to any information they wish, get smarter sooner, and be more aware of the world outside their local environment. A better informed humanity will make better macro-level decisions, and an increasingly integrated world will drive international relations towards a global focus. Attachments to countries will marginally decrease, and attachments to the Earth as a shared resource will significantly increase.
  • Communities. The future of the Internet communications revolution is ongoing, now uniting communities as it recently united networks. Not everything about the Internet is global; an interconnected world is also locally interconnected. The Internet will increasingly be used for communications within communities as much as across countries. Local communities will organize in virtual space and take increasing advantage of group communication tools such as mailing lists, newsgroups, and websites, and towns and cities will become more organized and empowered at the neighborhood level.

    At the same time, communities will be as profoundly affected by the capabilities the Internet is bringing to individual communications, providing individuals in the once isolating city the ability to easily establish relationships with others in their local area by first meeting in cyberspace. From hobby clubs to political organizations to social networking, Internet applications will change expectations of geographically oriented community organizations, and provide increasingly wide choices to individuals who wish to participate in local communities that share their interests.

  • Virtual reality. The future of the Internet technological revolution will continue to be made in man’s image. Experiments with wide area voice and video communications on the Internet began to be held in the early 1990’s. Voice over IP (VOIP) began to be used regularly for long distance voice communications in 2002. Internet video phones won’t be far behind. With the continued doubling of computer capability every couple of years, the ability of technology to process the complex analog environment that humans live in — “reality” — will continue to increase, and will be increasingly integrated with the Internet.

    Three dimensional graphics will become more sophisticated, and virtual reality interfaces such as viewers and tactile feedback systems will become more realistic. The technology will be applied to innovative ways to navigate the Internet’s information universe, for hyper-realistic gaming, and for group communications. There will come a day when you will be able to have dinner with a group of friends each in a different city, almost as though you were in the same room, although you will all have to bring your own food.

    Virtual reality applications will not only better and better reflect the natural world, they will also have the fluidity, flexibility, and speed of the digital world, layered on the Internet, and so will be used to create apparently magical environments of types we can only now begin to imagine. These increasingly sophisticated virtual experiences will continue to change how we understand the nature of reality, experience, art, and human relations.

  • Bandwidth. The future of the Internet growth in bandwidth availability shows little sign of flattening. Large increases of bandwidth in the 10 Mbps range and up will continue to be deployed to home users through cable, phone, and wireless networks. Cable modems and telephone-based DSL modems will continue to spread high speed Internet throughout populated areas. High resolution audio, video, and virtual reality will be increasingly available online and on demand, and the cost of all kinds of Internet connections will continue to drop.
  • Wireless. The future of Internet wireless communications is the end-game. Wireless frequencies has two great advantages: (a) there are no infrastructure start-up or maintenance costs other than the base stations, and (b) it frees users to become mobile, taking Internet use from one dimension to three. Wireless Internet networks will offer increasingly faster services at vastly lower costs over wider distances, eventually pushing out physical transmission systems.

    The Internet’s open TCP/IP design was originally inspired by use of radio communications networks in the 1970’s. The wireless technologies experimented with in the 1990’s were continually improved. By the early 2000’s, several technologies provided reliable, secure, high bandwidth networking that worked in crowded city centers and on the move, providing nearly the same mobility for Internet communications as for the cellular phone.

  • Grids. The future of the Internet grid movement is as inevitable as the spread of the Internet seems now. The connection of thousands of computers on the Internet together to solve problems, often called grid computing, will continue to evolve and change many areas of human endevour. In a large scale example of the connected Internet fostering technological cooperation, un-used computer cycles from home users across the world will be harnessed together to provide enormous reservoirs of computer power for all sorts of purposes. Increasingly used for scientific and engineering research, grids can create processing powerhouses far larger than any one organization by itself.
  • Integration. The future of the Internet integration with an increasing number of other technologies is as natural as a musician’s experimentation with notes. The Internet will become increasingly integrated with phones, televisions, home appliances, portable digital assistants, and a range of other small hardware devices, providing an unprecedented, nearly uniform level of integrated data communications. Users will be able to access, status, and control this connected infrastructure from anywhere on the Internet.

One of the leading efforts to define the future of the next generation Internet is the Internet2 project, which grew out of the transition of the NSFNET to the Very High Speed Backbone Network Service (vBNS, The vBNS supported very high bandwidth research applications, and was established in 1995 as a cooperative agreement between MCI and the National Science Foundation.