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Vinton Cerf, Architect Of the Web

He’s probably tired of hearing the Al Gore jokes. But a few pioneers are recognized as the founding fathers of the Net. Among them is Senior Vice President of Internet Architecture and Technology for WorldCom Vinton Cerf.

(click thumbnail)Vinton CerfHe’s probably tired of hearing the Al Gore jokes. But a few pioneers are recognized as the founding fathers of the Net. Among them is Senior Vice President of Internet Architecture and Technology for WorldCom Vinton Cerf.

Cerf delivers the Technology Luncheon keynote address on Wednesday, April 25, at the NAB2001 convention in Las Vegas.

His technical innovations include co-designing the TCP/IP protocols that serve as the underlying architecture of the World Wide Web. He served as the founding president of the Internet Society from 1992-95 and the organization’s chairman of the board in 1999.

He is the founding chairman of the new Internet Societal Task Force, charged with making Internet access universal and analyzing international, national and local policies for Net use. He has been a member of the U.S. Presidential Information Technology Advisory Committee since 1997.

Cerf’s work has helped create an emerging communications medium based on delivering packets of data quite unlike the steady stream typical of traditional broadcast. The Internet’s distinctive information infrastructure defines both limits and possibilities for new media.

Radio World’s Carl Lindemann interviewed Cerf about what lies ahead for radio and the Internet.

RW:Does radio really translate to the Web given the Internet’s IP protocols?

Cerf: First, we need to define what we mean by “radio.” It’s commonly understood as broadcast radio. But radio as a means of wireless communication is affecting the Internet in ways beyond conventional broadcast radio.

A lot of my interest goes beyond the reproduction of broadcasts over the Internet. Think about wireless telegraphy. That’s what Marconi demonstrated in 1901. We didn’t get the first broadcast use till 1916.

RW: Yes, but station streams are gathering audiences online.

Cerf: Of course. Looking at broadcast in the Internet context, it’s already very clear that on-demand radio is happening quite broadly on the Net. So far, there aren’t a lot of devices to support this.

Walking around my office, I see people listening to streaming audio in their cubicles with headphones on.

RW:What do you make of the intellectual property issues raised?

Cerf: I don’t know what to think about that.

My biggest fear is that we’ll end up with laws that can’t be implemented or, worse, are enforced by the wrong people, like the Internet service provider.

There are other issues that are important to look at as broadcasters move online. Equal time, for example, looks very different here because there’s no limit to time on the Internet.

RW: But the FCC does not have the same regulatory responsibilities over the Internet as it does radio and TV.

Cerf: That’s been a subject of some discussion and debate. (FCC Commissioner) Harold Furchtgott-Roth would agree with you. But others would say that it does and that, for now, they’ve just held off regulating to let the new medium grow.

We could have a good debate at NAB2001if we could get Michael Powell to come out. He’s going to be under pressure because of a kind of schizophrenia that strikes Republicans. They’re split between a desire for a hands-off regulatory attitude and a concern for content – an outrage over the fact that certain things are found on the Net.

(Ed. Note: FCC Chairman Powell was indeed expected to speak at NAB2001.)

RW:What about concerns about free, open access as media giants like AOL/Time Warner try to direct those online to its content?

Cerf: AOL/Time Warner will have to skirt that with some care. Otherwise, we’ll be moving back to the time when the movie studios owned the theaters and would only play what they had produced.

RW:What are the non-broadcast radio concepts that interest you?

Cerf: The idea of reproducing audio online opens up all kinds of intriguing possibilities. Really, this allows for an expansion of what we think of as radio.

In cars, for example, an Internet-enabled device can deliver more than just sound. It might just as well have a “heads-up” display with it. What’s powerful is that you can separate audio and video advertising, or have audio with video information that’s not tied to it.

Using the Internet this way makes it a richer medium than radio. You don’t have to interfere with the audio playing to achieve advertising objectives because that information can be offered elsewhere.

And it’s not just video and audio, either. You can deliver anything embedded in Internet packets – all kinds of additional content on top of the audio.

RW:What about altogether different communication concepts unique to the Internet?

Cerf: I’m still toying with the idea of what it might it mean to have “group radio.” This is where people use a Web-based application where sound is produced.

RW:This sounds similar to some attempts at musicians having online “jams” as well as talk radio programming.

Cerf: Yes. And it’s hard to make that work. You can’t afford much delay before the jam or the conversation breaks down.

Doing audio and video synched is tricky. I participated in a talk radio show we did all around the Net. A fellow in San Diego was taking audio off the phone line from around the world and dumping it on the Internet.

Meanwhile, we were also in a chat session online. I was typing something about the sound I was hearing. Someone typed back that they were hearing something else. We discovered that people on dial-up connections were anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds behind those connected with a T-1 line. The typing and the talking weren’t in synch.

It’s partly a consequence of having to buffer audio to keep it from breaking up. The buffering is a consequence of (the need for) storing forward. Packet switching over varying bandwidth circuits introduces a great deal of variability.

RW: So the Internet is really better geared for asynchronous communications rather than those in real-time?

Cerf: In some ways, simultaneity no longer means anything. Looking far into the future at the interplanetary Internet, the phrase “at the same time” is completely empty.

RW:Speaking of space, what about the wireless future where Internet data is distributed via satellite?

Cerf: I’ve gotten very excited about digital broadcast satellite as a way to deliver high-bandwidth IP packets to targets. It is a very reasonable thing to do, especially if it is a one-way multicast.

With enough forward correction, you can do a fairly good job of sending (more) than just sound and video. The satellites going up for broadcast radio are not geared for this. However, the digital broadcast satellites for video are perfectly suited for it.

RW:What about the next-generation cell phone network?

Cerf: Things have been evolving rather quickly with the third-generation cell phone network. Supposedly, it’s got a 2 megabit burst rate. That’s not a continuous rate and I’m not sure what these can sustain. It’s also an open question as to how many of these can operate per square mile.

This depends on technical issues that will have to be sorted out – things like power control issues and how it relates to the “near-far” problem.

RW:Is it a mistake to just think of the Internet as an alternate means of distributing broadcast material?

Cerf: It’s like calling an automobile a horseless carriage.

It’s a common thing (with an innovation) to start out with something that emulates the known medium with a known market in place. Then, once it’s become established, you discover a lot of other things. In time, Internet telephony will sound as sensible as “horseless carriage.”

RW:And this gets back to radio’s first use – “wireless telegraphy.” Broadcasting followed much later.

Cerf: Exactly. (Where the Internet differentiates itself from traditional broadcast) is in the ability to do things on demand and interaction in general.

What’s terrific about some new devices, for example the TiVo (personal TV service), is that it allows you to pause real-time TV broadcasts. Think of how this could translate to radio. Suppose you’re driving and the phone goes off. How nice to be able to hit pause and pick up the radio show where it left off!

RW: So broadcasters should be looking for ways to add amenities offered by the Internet – combinations of the media.

Cerf: Hybrid ideas are what I preach about all the time.

Think about voice-enabled browsers. We’re seeing speech recognition becoming a very valuable tool. You could even have a conversation with the Internet-enabled computer playing the streams to your car.

What’s tremendous is that the Internet lends itself to broadcast when it’s appropriate to have a lot of people connected as well as to narrowcast or pointcast. It’s capable of all this.