Why a free and open Internet is pointless

March 15, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) holds a hearing in Washington
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) holds a hearing in Washington February 26, 2015. The FCC is expected Thursday to approve Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposed "net neutrality" rules, regulating broadband providers more heavily than in the past and restricting their power to control download speeds on the web. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TELECOMS) - RTR4RAVK
Photograph by Yuri Gripas — Reuters

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission issued its final net neutrality rules, reclassifying the Internet as a public utility. The agency’s historic step is aimed at preventing paid traffic prioritization, data blocking and bandwith throttling, which are among the biggest threats to a free and open Internet, net neutrality supporters say.

The measures have roiled the Internet world. And for good reason: If the FCC’s rules stick, Internet services sold by phone and cable TV companies would be subject to government oversight for the first time. That has major implications for carriers like AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ), which strongly oppose government regulation of online services.

We will watch, along with the rest of the world, as the issues are expected to make its way through the courts. If that happens, it remains to be seen which side will prevail, but more broadly, none of this will matter if the underlying networks that are the focus of this proceeding are not getting the job done. And by that I mean many of today’s IP networks that store and deliver data and information into our homes and offices are woefully outdated. Hard to believe, but traditional IP – short for “Internet Protocol” — is now more than 20 years old. Even more remarkable, the IP networks that are based on this elegant and enduring standard haven’t changed all that much since they debuted in the mid-1990s — that’s like the Ice Age in the digital world.

Back then, the Internet had 16 million users and 2,700 web sites. Dial-up was standard and smart phones were a novelty. Online shopping was brand new. Facebook (FB), YouTube, Instagram and the other digital platforms did not exist. This is the world into which old IP networks were born, and for many years thrived. Modeled after the Internet – the largest and most famous IP network of all – circa-1995 IP networks were cool, operationally efficient and a great alternative to other options of the era.

Flash forward to today.The Internet has more than 3 billion users, and 1 billion web sites. We buy and sell nearly everything online, and we buy constantly – 24 hours a day. As for mobile – that’s not just a market segment anymore; it’s a global mindset. There are nearly as many mobile subscriptions as there are people on the planet today — around 6.7 billion. (global population: 7 billion). And we are tethered to our devices 24/7 – most of us never unplug, in fact. In short, the world has changed dramatically in the past two decades, and so have the needs of online users.

The implications of this tectonic shift are enormous: In the short span of 20 years, we’ve gone from connecting places, to connecting people to connecting things. “The Internet of Things,” promoted by just about everybody these days, is shorthand for the billions of devices that connect to, and rely on, the Internet every day – more than 25 billion by 2020, estimates research house Gartner.

That brings me back to where I started: The FCC and net neutrality.

Simply put, a free and open Internet – which goes to the heart of the FCC’s intent – hinges on the ability of the IP networks to deliver and, even more importantly, perhaps, withstand the rising and relentless pressures of data. According to research house IDC, the data universe is growing by 40% annually, which means it is doubling in size, effectively, every two years. At that rate, the data we create, copy and download annually will reach 44 zettabytes, or 44 trillion gigabytes, by 2020.

This is, without question, one of the biggest challenges of our time. And IT managers bear the brunt of that, because they have the unenviable task of making sure the networks that support all this connectivity – downloading, file sharing, streaming, social connections, business communications, critical communications, the list is endless – don’t crater under the weight and velocity of this nonstop data gusher.

On the plus side, we are now entering a remarkable era in networking, one that has the potential to tilt the scale of the human experience and lay groundwork for the next generation of dreamers. The invention now landing is something the global tech community is calling, quite simply, TheNewIP. A contemporary and far more potent version of classic IP, New IP is the result of 20 years of accumulated knowledge in networking. Like any breakthrough, many companies contributed to the evolution, including Intel (INTC), Cisco (CSCO) and my company, Brocade (BRCD).

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama acknowledged the unique role of advanced networking to our country, and to our higher aims as a global economy. The future of the Internet, he observed, depends on the ability of digital innovators and entrepreneurs to “keep reshaping our world.” Super-fast and efficient networks, he summed, are critical to that cause, and greater purpose.New IP was not mentioned by name, but some of us in the networking community sat up a little straighter when we heard that, because we knew exactly what he was talking about: High-performance digital infrastructure is a conduit for online services, yes. But on a far grander scale, it is also a universal platform that defines our lives, as well as the pace of global innovation.

That begs a question: Why innovate using 20-year old networks? Whereas the old IP reflects the mid-90s era into which it was born, and to some degree still belongs, New IP goes the other way: It is software-based, open-platform and designed for rapid innovation; most changes can be done remotely. (Old IP, in sharp contrast, is hardware-based, closed-platform and notoriously labor and time intensive.) To use an analogy from the music industry, old IP is the record album; New IP is the iPod playlist: Download any single you want, from any artist you want – hit “play” and enjoy.

We will leave it to others to duke it out over net neutrality – the FCC received almost 4 million comments, so the courtroom drama, if the issue goes that route, could be pretty interesting. Meantime, life goes on. And so does life on the Internet. We will continue to do our part, along with the rest of the global networking community, by ensuring that the networks that define and drive our lives – as well as our businesses, governments, academic institutions and more – live up to the hope, dreams and expectations of the planet, every single day.

Lloyd Carney is CEO of Brocade Communications, a San Jose, CA-based technology company specializing in data and storage networking products.

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