Computers: Commercial wave hits Net: Mike James wonders if governments will continue to pay for the Internet

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The Independent Online
It seems everyone now wants to get connected and 'surf the Internet'. Worldwide access to thousands of computers and the information that they contain is a big attraction. So is the ability to send and receive messages from people all over the world. Yet this global communications system seems to spring ready-formed from out of nowhere.

For years commercial electronic mail (E-mail) systems laboured to create a network that spanned the world, but the various elements remained stubbornly isolated. Each system - Cix, Compuserve, Telecom Gold, Easy Link to name just a few - enabled their own subscribers to exchange messages and files quickly and easily. But if you wanted to communicate with someone subscribing to a different system then it was usually impossible. Users often had to resort to more primitive methods of communication - fax or telex - to create their own bridges between the systems. It was as if the country was covered by a number of completely incompatible telephone systems.

This fragmentation made E-mail unattractive to many prospective users. Yet today the Internet appears to offer a complete solution to the problem. A single network, or rather a network of networks which is what the Internet is, now covers the world and you can send an E-mail message to almost anyone - including subscribers to most of the original systems. Indeed commercial E-mail systems are having something of a boom because of the interest in the Internet and their new found role as Internet providers.

However, it is easy to get carried away with the general euphoria for the Internet and miss its real importance. The image of the Net, created, aided and abetted by the media, is that it is fun. Join the Net and see, or rather read, the world. It has the both the taint and the excitement of amateur status. Tony Hancock's radio ham would be a Net surfer if the classic program was remade.

The Internet grew from a need to prove that a network which could withstand nuclear attack was feasible. From this Cold War perspective - paranoia or realism depending on your point of view - grew Arpanet. This small network eventually turned into the Internet as other machines and networks joined it. Slowly the emphasis of the network moved away from military needs to the academic. In the UK, the equivalent network, Janet - Joint Academic Net - was always orientated towards education and academia. This is perhaps where the Internet's 'fun' image first originated. Who can afford to build a costly network and run it to no observable commercial purpose, apart from academics funded by government?

The Internet continued to grow but computers were only allowed to join if sponsored by a government agency. This created a community of users and an ethos that was a cross between the world of the computer hacker and the ivory tower of the academic. Then something surprising happened. In 1992 the rules for joining the Internet were relaxed and virtually anyone with the equipment could connect. This is the first phase of the commercialisation of the Internet and it is directly responsible for the boom that we are witnessing. The liberalisation of the rules allowed commercial services to connect and sell their time to anyone willing to pay.

This was a shock to the sensibilities of the existing Internet community but an exciting one. Thousands of people joined the Net, increasing its importance and usefulness. Letting the barbarians in made the system grow, but it opened the gates to barbaric practices - such as advertising. The response of the non-commercial purists was often vicious. One law firm broadcast an advert only to find their mail box clogged with angry E-mail. Yet the Internet is more tolerant of respectable commercial ventures - where respectable means useful to the academic environment, such as direct book sales or fax copies of magazine articles. There is even a profit-making newspaper distributed over the network. The storm over the commercial use of the Internet continues, but it really serves only to divert attention from the more important issue of who is paying for it all. When I send an E-mail to someone in the US, I pay my service provider but I do not pay the full cost of the transmission. I can transfer large quantities of data over the Internet and I am sheltered from the true cost by the generosity of a number of national governments who pay for the Internet's communications backbone. It is as if BT suddenly decided to charge me for a local connection to the telephone exchange, but said that after that any further long-distance connection was free.

Clearly if the Internet continues to experience its explosive growth this cannot continue. It cannot be reasonable that I can send an Internet E-mail to the US, or any part of the world, paid for in the main by someone else and it is a natural law that sooner or later the bill will find its rightful owner. Already old Internet hands are beginning to complain that the tidal wave of new users are slowing the system down to unacceptable levels.

The next logical step will either be to upgrade the system, the cost being met by the public purse, or to restrict access, presumably by charging users for the existing long-haul data transport. It is not hard to guess which is the most likely.

Even while we are witnessing the first stage in the commercialisation of the Internet, the second is already in the planning. President Clinton talks of a superhighway and now we too in the UK are getting worried about not having a high-speed national network that connects every home and office. To provide this, the commercial interests of the cable televison and telephone network companies are being mobilised and this, too, could well contribute to the financial collapse of the Internet.

The idea is that the country will be wired with a super network and we will have TV-top boxes to enable us to connect. The fruits of this connection, and the vast investment it will entail, will be video on demand and interactive entertainment of all sorts. The subsidised Internet will have to die simply because it represents unfair competition.

Somehow I doubt that this vision of the future will be quick to materialise. The cable and telephone companies could have built the Internet - but they didn't. Why should they do any better with the Super-Internet?

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