Cerf’s up!

9 Mar 2006

He spends 85pc of his time travelling the world as the internet’s chief apostle; his average altitude is 12,000 feet. Despite this Vint Cerf (pictured) betrays no evidence of jet lag or boredom as he talks about the internet, which is more than 30 years old as a technology and 15 years old as a mass cultural phenomenon.

In fact, his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious and a mesmerising 90 minutes have passed before the assembled hacks realise time is up and emerge blinking into the light.

Resplendent in a three-piece suit complete with a tie-pin, Cerf looks more like an aristocrat than a computer scientist. When he apologises for getting too technical — “I’m sorry, had I slipped into Geek?” — it is amazing to think that this man played a key role in leading the development of the TCP/IP protocols and the internet. For this he is commonly referred to as one of “the founding fathers of the internet”.

Cerf is currently chief internet evangelist at internet search giant Google, which currently employs over 900 people in Dublin and is in the process of creating 600 more jobs. He was in Dublin last week to help in a drive to attract some 150 engineers to the company’s Irish operations.

Cerf sits on many boards and committees of government agencies and universities around the world — including the Irish Government’s Telecoms Advisory Group in the late Nineties — and is currently the chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. He also is working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop a technology for deep-space communications from planet to planet.

It is a testament to the man’s native curiosity that before any journalist gets a word in edgeways he throws the first question. “What’s the story with internet and PC penetration in Ireland? Is it just a little collection of geeks and then everyone else?” Heads immediately start nodding in the affirmative and the usual round of bitching about telecoms companies, governments and the urban-rural divide sparks up.

Cerf nods sagely. “We had a very similar experience in the US. We also asked what’s going on and why it [broadband penetration] was slow compared to South Korea or Singapore. There’s something really interesting about the UK experience of broadband. That is that Ofcom [the UK telecoms regulator] took a position that broadband had to be offered on both a wholesale and retail basis.

“In the US the carriers are resisting this with a passion. Their point of view is that they want to hold a gun to the heads of people and companies like Google and say you can’t even send anything over our broadband resources without paying us. And we’re saying, wait a minute, your subscriber already paid for that.

“In the UK, the rules were made so the carriers had to offer this wholesale capability and this made it more accessible to third parties to offer services and add to whatever facilities or functions that exist and offer these on a retail basis. I asked one of the BT guys who’s responsible for the wholesale service ‘how is it as a business you are feeling oppressed and forced to do things you don’t want to do?’ He said: ‘This is a great business!’ For them it is a high-margin business because there isn’t a whole lot to be done to supply broadband access to a third party who can turn around and treat it like a retail product.

“I wish we could infect all of the regulatory apparatus in Europe with the same depth of understanding that Ofcom has about the utility of making wholesale access to broadband facilities a requirement. It would be good business for the supplier and it’s a wonderful opportunity for innovation for the people who can make it a retail product. I have been trying to sell this in the US too, but of course carriers that listen to that idea are not always receptive to it,” Cerf sighs.

Asked what’s going to happen to the internet now that it is only 15 years into its existence in the public sphere, Cerf says: “There are only one billion users of the internet right now. That’s only 15pc of the world’s population.” He predicts that this will grow to three billion by 2010, half the world’s population.

“If people ask what’s going to happen to the internet, my honest answer is talk to the 14 year olds. They are the ones who will really determine what happens to the internet — either they will be inventing new applications or they will be demanding new applications. They will bring their experiences as kids in this network environment to the business world in the same way email came to the business world. “In the early Nineties all the universities had email and when students left to go to work the first question they would ask is: ‘Where’s my email? What do you mean you’re running a company without email? Are you crazy?'”

Cerf says the internet as we know it is in a state of evolution and that very soon broadband could be accessible by our electricity infrastructure and machines will use the internet to talk to machines, overwhelming the number of humans using the net. “I believe that 99pc of the internet’s applications have yet to be invented,” Cerf says. Anyone want to take bets on him being right?

By John Kennedy