Bursting at the Seams

The Net's exploding growth reveals its flaws--like sluggish last-mile data rates and whimsical wireless delivery--and spotlights key management, security, and regulatory issues

Image: Richard Tuschman

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Always On: Living in a Networked World.

In an "always-on" world, the Internet is constantly available, ready to instantly deliver information that's custom-tailored to the recipients' precise needs and wants.

That's the vision. Here's the far-different reality.

Running for the most part over the same pathways as more traditional communications, the Internet is straining those pathways, especially at the edges. Data-carrying capacity needs to expand rapidly, and so new optical technology must be widely and quickly deployed in long-haul links. Even more important, an order-of-magnitude increase is desperately needed in the rate at which data is delivered over the last-mile path to end-users--and that jump must be made quickly and at reasonable cost.

After years of management by the U.S. government, the Internet has outgrown its national origins and is struggling to develop an international organization to oversee its operation. At the same time, it must be prepared to defend itself against constantly evolving and often malicious attempts to disrupt its workings.

Further, as Internet protocols overtake plain old telephony and as customers move to always-on high-speed connections, the way networks traditionally have been organized and regulated will in all likelihood have to be rethought. For example, as telephone service becomes a vanishingly small part of Internet-delivered bundled packet services, "the whole traditional telephone rate structure [as set by state and Federal regulators] begins to collapse," says Robert W. Crandall, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

In this section, IEEE Spectrum looks at some of the problems surrounding these Internet infrastructure issues.

For instance, there's the problem with installed optical cabling--Michael J. Riezenman points out that 95 percent of it has to be replaced if communication capacity is to be maximized. Then, too, there is growing discontent with how the Internet is being governed by its newly appointed overseer, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, Marina Del Rey, Calif., as Richard Comerford notes. And as networks become global, a host of new regulatory problems arise, explains William Sweet: telecom and information-technology regulators who once operated independently within their nations' boundaries must now contend with their counterparts in other countries when it comes to making industry-governing rules.

Yet other kinds of enforcement problems arise from the fact that attackers are busily devising more sophisticated ways to wreak havoc on the Internet and elude detection, as Comerford writes. Finally, Riezenman observes that wireless communication, seen by many as a possible cure for much of the networks' stress, must still slog through a tough period of standardization and the weeding out of alternative approaches before it can help.

Lastly, Riezenman takes a graphical look at the continuing effort to build out the traditional network in "Beneath the Internet: Explosive Growth Drives Improvements to the Infrastructure."

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