In the fax lane on the information highway

If Bruce Bond has his way, we will soon be using the Internet rather than the telephone lines to send our faxes. Ian Grayson asks him about his plan to relieve the big telecoms companies of a large chunk of their business.

Bruce Bond is about as far from the popular image of an Internet enthusiast as you can get: he is a former professional American football player, and his broad shoulders, wide smile and infectious laugh give him a commanding presence.

But despite the lack of thick-rimmed spectacles, pocket-protector and ill-fitting clothes, Bond is an Internet evangelist of the highest order.

"It's unbelievably exciting," he enthuses. "It has the potential to transform the world, and it's growing at around 400 per cent a year. What could be more fun than that?"

Bond is in the position to put his enthusiasm to work. He is chief executive officer of ANS Communications, the provider of networking infrastructure to America Online's 10 million customers. ANS also delivers corporate data networking services to businesses around the globe. Together, these activities enabled the company to boost its global annual revenues to $230m in 1997. This is predicted to grow to around $1bn by 2000.

Bond joined ANS in 1996 from BT, where he was managing director of the company's products and services management division. Until 1989 he had worked for the American telecoms company US West, where he was corporate vice-president for strategic planning. As well as being enthusiastic about the Internet - he describes it as being "pregnant with potential" - Bond is also a great believer in the technology that makes it possible - Internet Protocol (IP).

"At the moment, there are not a lot of companies using Internet technologies to provide serious corporate data networking facilities, particularly in Europe," he says. "But I think this will change."

According to Bond, the beauty of the technology that underpins the Internet is that it was designed from the beginning to enable people to work more effectively with each other, and to send and receive information painlessly, even if they have little technical expertise. His faith in the Internet's future is based on the belief that it can be made accessible to everyone.

"And it's all evolving at an astounding rate. If you look at traditional telephone services, you see a new set of features coming out once every three years. With the Internet, it's almost every day," he says.

According to Bond, the next big Internet growth surge will come not from surfers checking out the latest web site, but from the humble fax machine. ANS is preparing to launch a service that will enable faxes to transmit via the Internet rather than over the conventional telephone network, and the results could be astounding.

"Some estimates put fax at up to 50 per cent of all international [telephone] traffic," says Bond. "You are soon going to see large chunks of this business migrate on to the Internet."

While this sounds great for fax users, who could see their communications costs plummet overnight - and even better for ANS, which stands to grab a big slice of new business - telecom operators will have to come to terms with the implications of a big drop in traffic.

"The potential savings are enormous and this will become a big issue for the telcos," he says.

"In many ways it is only just starting to come into their consciousness."

However, Bond is not reluctant to take business away from traditional telecommunications networks. He sees it as further evidence of the power of IP technology to change the way businesses operate.

As more businesses begin to understand the power and potential of the Internet, two issues constantly dominate discussions: how to pay for service, and how to boost speeds. Bond has clear views on each.

For domestic users of the Internet, Bond is confident that the current subscription system will remain for the foreseeable future.

"AOL believes that at the 10 million subscriber mark, which they now have reached, they passed the break-even point, and they are now making a profit," he says. "Eventually, the Internet will be like television or newspapers, where the consumer will pay only a fraction of what it costs to produce the material. Advertising and commerce services will pay for the rest."

According to Bond, the business model is very different. He predicts the evolution of timed or metered services that will allow companies to pay for capacity. "Businesses want the ability to pay for what they use, and get a high-quality service."

He says that service level guarantees (SLGs) are becoming more common, and that this will continue.

"On our virtual private data networks, we [ANS] guarantee less than 70 milliseconds of delay from point to point. The international voice standard is 300 milliseconds."

While many see the Internet's rapid growth and the resulting performance problems - the so-called World Wide Wait - as evidence that bandwidth restrictions will hamper future use, Bond does not agree.

He says that carriers are constantly developing new technologies that will provide bandwidth levels that could once have only been dreamed about. Some US carriers were installing network links capable of carrying data at rates of 10 gigabits per second over a single optic fibre.

"Here in the UK, BT labs are testing technology that gives one terabit - a trillion bits - down one fibre the size of a human hair. They think that the ultimate capacity might be 25 trillion bits - that's sufficient capacity to allow 3 million simultaneous telephone conversations."

But even though his job is focused on the provision of the services - the electronic plumbing - that allow the Internet and corporate data networks to operate, Bond appears far keener to discuss the impact such technology is having on the world.

"It almost has a devolutionary feel to it," he says. "It takes us back to where you could be a blacksmith, or a tailor, or a greengrocer, and you didn't have to be in a formal structure. You could contribute to society just because of your own skills and abilities, and not have to be a part of a big corporation. A lot of people are more comfortable that way."

He may have a point. After all, he concept of an economy that is based on large corporations and organisations is less than 100 years old. Internet technologies may well be the force that removes our reliance on them, creating a level playing-field for the workplace and allowing anyone to participate as and when they wish.

But regardless of whether or not people are keen to embrace such developments, Bond is convinced that they are here to stay.

"There is a bit of a `Hotel California' feel to it," he says. "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. "There's just no escaping that this technology is becoming increasingly important for all of us."

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