- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

15 minutes with … Vinton G. Cerf

Vinton G. Cerf hasn't slowed down.

He is widely regarded as the father of the Internet because of his role in developing the transmission and Internet protocols the rules used to guide data between computers on the network. Mr. Cerf now has turned his attention to a project to extend the Internet's reach to outer space.

By 2008, the 57-year-old Mr. Cerf predicts, we will have a two-planet Internet. One on Earth and one on Mars.

The so-called Interplanetary Internet is just one of the projects Mr. Cerf, surrounded by stuffed alligators that sit on his window ledge, is mulling over in his suburban office at WorldCom Inc.'s sprawling Ashburn, Va., campus.

Question: The Internet has an estimated 350 million users and many people have made millions of dollars off it. Does this match the vision you had when you began your work?

Answer: I wasn't anticipating any of the financials at all. We were looking at a technology and trying to develop this for the Defense Department. When I was at Stanford, it was an interesting technological problem. When I was at ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency], it was an interesting project for the military. Not until about 1988 did I realize how important it was going to be to make this thing an enterprise that would be self-supporting.

My theory was at some point the government couldn't afford to pay for Internet for everybody. So that's when I went to the federal government and asked for permission to start hooking up commercial systems to the Internet backbone, which up until 1988 was illegal. So they gave permission to hook up MCI mail to the Internet backbone.

Q: How long do you think the growth of the Internet will continue?

A: Obviously it's going to slow down because otherwise we have more Web sites than we have electrons in the universe or something.

There are only 350 to 400 million users on the Net now out of 6 billion people in the world, so we clearly have a long way to go. Most countries in the world have some access to the Internet, though it's pretty limited in some places, in Africa in particular. My guess is we will continue to see this kind of rapid growth possibly through the end of the decade. That gets us up to about half of the world's population. That's approximately the scale of the telephone base today. Half the world's population has access to the telephone system. After that it gets harder.

The one thing that may sustain the Internet growth is its utility is not confined to people. It's also a very useful system for the interconnection of computers or other programmable devices. So I expect to see billions of appliances on the Net, many more than there are people. Those appliances will interact with each other or with servers on the network to perform various services for people.

Q: Does a day go by that you don't use the Internet or a Wed-based device?

A: Generally, no. The only time that happens is when my computer is broken and I'm not in a position where I can get access to the Net, but I'm very dependent on the Net. Not just for electronic mail, but for information. The machine at my desk has a small radio in it. At home I roam around the house and can sit down anywhere and still be on the Net because I have a wireless local area network.

Q: As broadband develops do you anticipate access, especially for minorities and the poor, to increase?

A: The digital divide problem is interesting because in a way it's a sign of success. If we didn't have a successful Internet, no one would care if there was a digital divide. So I think it's a temporary problem. As time goes by, the cost of equipment to get you on the Net is dropping.

There's another thing that won't erase the digital divide, but will change the possibilities, and that is speech understanding. We're starting to experiment with what we call voice browsing. A voice browser simply lets you interact with a computer on a network that understands speech. For simple tasks this has already been demonstrated.

The real solution to the digital divide, though, is going to be looking at investment strategies for stimulating the creation of infrastructure in countries where it's still very lightly penetrated.

Q: You were named chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers earlier this month. Are you concerned ICANN has strayed beyond its original intent, its technical mission?

A: I wouldn't use the word 'stray.' ICANN has been cast by many in a larger posture that it needs to be, and people look at it as providing Internet governance on a global scale. That's far larger a responsibility than it should have and does have. It has a very limited charter.

It's responsible for administering the domain name system and it's responsible for administering Internet provider address allocation. Those are nontrivial responsibilities, but they are not the same as the governance of the network. There are lots of issues associated with Internet that ICANN has no authority or ability to cope with taxation, content protection, intellectual property protection, dispute resolution of all kinds, not just domain names and trademarks.

Personally, I hope to guide ICANN closer to its original responsibility, which is to make sure the domain name system works well and that the Internet address allocation is done sensibly.

I recognize there are non-technical issues raised and some of those fall within the purview of ICANN. For example, having a policy to deal with domain name disputes. On the other hand, adjudicating trademark disputes might very well be done outside of ICANN.

Q: Can you talk about Interplanetary Internet? It's something you've been working on with engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab to sketch a wireless network to let space-based machines communicate. The Interplanetary Internet would let satellites serve as Internet gateways and transmit packets of data to and from Earth and among themselves. Why is that needed?

A: This is all driven by NASA's and other space agencies' initiatives to explore the solar system. When we send robotic vehicles out there, they have to communicate back to us. If they don't, we don't get any value out of it. We need to communicate in both directions, so we can control them. But every single mission has tended to have its own communications assets, and they are isolated to that one mission.

Some standards are beginning to emerge for space communications. A number of missions involve having orbiters in place around the planets, sometimes around the sun. So we asked ourselves, "What would a design look like? Not that we have to go build it, but if we did have need to build it, what would it look like?"

We wanted to see if we could extend the Internet so the assets out there could be communicated with through the Earth-based Internet. Since we have a well-defined set of protocols, why don't we use the same Internet protocols on Mars, on the moon, and on the satellites of Jupiter and in spacecraft as we do the ground? There's essentially no difference. However, ordinary Internet doesn't work when you talk about distances between Earth and Mars. So we said how do we design the protocols to work over the interplanetary distances? That led us to the design of an Interplanetary Internet architecture and a new set of protocols that work with the existing Internet.

That design was prototyped in August and we have software running. We launched a satellite in the middle of November.

Q: Does it help space exploration?

A: What this will do is create a backbone for a communications system so that new missions don't have to carry all their own communications assets. They can make use of the growing interplanetary backbone. At some point, it will be possible to commercialize some activities in space.

We now believe we have a reasonable step forward toward the design of such a backbone, and we believe it could be implemented step by step as each mission is launched. So by the end of 2008 we will have a two-planet Internet in operation because we will have several satellites in orbit around Mars."


Vinton G. Cerf, WorldCom senior vice president of Internet architecture and technology, since Sept. 1998

Age: 57

Education: B.S. math, computer science, Stanford University, 1965; M.S. computer science, University of California, Los Angeles, 1970; Ph.D., computer science, University of California, Los Angeles, 1972

Web page I use most often: the search engine Google.com

Last thing I bought on the Internet: From Amazon.com, two Harry Potter books to give as Christmas presents

Family: Married to wife, Sigrid, since 1966; two children, David and Bennett

If you wish to contact me: [email protected]

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