I started my career at Bell Labs in the early 1960s, I was an insignificant
worker in the vast empire known as the Bell System. Sometimes I felt like a mechanic in the engine room deep in
the bowels of a stately cruise ship. Somewhere far above me on the bridge of the ship the captain
and officers had plotted the course across the boundless seas.
Occasionally, over the din of the machines that surrounded me, I could
hear the parties of the happy passengers – the telephone-using public – on
the levels above me. However, my only concern was the health of those engines.
Did they need more oil? Could
they be tuned to run faster or more efficiently?
would often see pictures of the smiling company executives in the newspapers.
Everything was under control; the future was planned and assured.
There were shelves of books of Bell System references that detailed every
feature of the existing network, and there were scores of reports charting its
future evolution. At that time the
future transmission system being developed was the millimeter waveguide, a 5 cm
diameter pipe that would carry all the capacity needed well into the next
century. That was a lot of
capacity, because everyone would need a 6 MHz analog channel for their
Picturephone. It was all
the world has changed! A few years
ago I got a surprise call from the retired executive who had headed the
engineering of the network in that bygone era.
In my mind he had been the keeper of the charts that had plotted the
course of that grand ocean liner. He
said that he wanted to find out what was going on in telecommunications today.
Could I meet him for lunch?
the restaurant he had hardly been seated before he burst out with the question.
“Who runs the Internet?” he demanded.
was taken aback. “No one runs the
Internet,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders helplessly.
can’t be! “ he shouted angrily, pounding the table for emphasis.
remember that conversation occasionally today.
It’s a good question. Who
does run the Internet? Decades ago
we trusted the captain to keep the ship on course towards its proper
destination. But who is steering
the early days of telephony, back at the turn of the last century, there were
competing telephone companies. Since
these companies were not interconnected, it was sometimes necessary to have
several telephones to be able to call different people in the same city.
It is easy to see why it was thought that telephony had the
characteristics of a natural monopoly and why the Bell System eventually became
a regulated monopoly. Someone had
to bring the network together.
monopoly ended in 1983 with the consent decree that broke up the Bell System,
but concern about the integrity of the network led to the creation of Bellcore
as a keeper of network standards in the new competitive world.
After all, there had to be some central place to worry about the
evolution of the network.
there is no such central place. For
better or for worse, the network steers itself. Assorted standards bodies issue
standards that may or may not become fashionable. Manufacturers twist and turn
between proprietary systems that may offer competitive advantage and
standards-based, me-too approaches. Service
providers ponder which interconnection and peering arrangements they should
accept. Guiding the whole thing in
an abstract way are market forces and Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the
value of a network grows as the square of the number of users.
In other words, to get maximum value connect with everyone else and be
like everyone else.
often wonder about how various networks pull together naturally -- fireflies
that light in synchrony or generators that pull into a power grid.
When the first digital transmission systems were designed there was a
question about how they would be synchronized.
The presumption was that there would be a master clock that ran the
network. However, there was a
research suggestion that if every clock in the network adjusted itself to the
average of every clock that it saw, that the network would pull into synchrony.
Interesting, but as you might expect, no one was willing to trust that
democracy of clocks, and the final design used a master clock.
the Internet pulls in around the Internet protocol, IP, which has been
relatively stable for the last thirty years.
It’s like a strange attractor in chaos theory. Applications may come and go, transmission media may come and
go, but IP remains as the stabilizing force at the core of the network.
Only by speaking IP can you be like everyone else.
who does run the Internet? The
answer is no one and everyone. Does
this really work? Maybe it does.
It’s still an interesting question.