The Internet can sometimes feel intimidating and even dangerous, but I’m glad to report that the guy who got the thing started is very nice and approachable.
Vint Cerf is also funny — early on he had a T-shirt made that said “IP on everything.”
Cerf, a key architect of the network and its military predecessor, now works at Google as a telecom policy expert and traveling sage who regularly visits the company’s offices around the world. (Technically, he’s vice president and “chief Internet evangelist.”)
Today he was speaking at Google’s Kirkland office before heading north to Vancouver for the GeoWeb conference on the intersection of the Web and geographic information systems.
I was one of the local reporters Google invited to meet with Cerf before his talk. (Interestingly, Google also invited Microsoft blogger Dare Obasanjo to interview him.)
In hiring Cerf, 64, Google is following the same path Microsoft did when it began hiring old lions such as Gordon Bell and Jim Gray, whose early research built its industry.
They’re more than figureheads, though, and Cerf’s experience with regulating emerging networks is particularly useful now that Google’s trying to enter the telecommunications business and bidding on new spectrum the government is auctioning off this year.
I asked whether Google will be known primarily as a telecom company in five or 10 years. Cerf said it’s still unclear what Google would do with wireless spectrum if it wins the auction.
“How would we use that and what business model would we apply? That’s still very much a fluid discussion. I think we’d like to have multiple business models to choose among in any case.”
What’s going to be Google’s biggest challenge if it moves into the telecommunications space?
“If we were to, for example, win the 22 MHz capacity or something like that on a national scale, then the biggest challenge there would be to figure out the most effective way to make use of that capacity. Are there third party arrangements we should consider, is there a wholesale model, do we actually run the service, do we cooperate with someone else [making] joint investments in infrastructure? All of those are questions that have got be answered. But I really don’t see that as our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is to continue to evolve the search engine capability and our ability to serve up advertising information which is useful.”
How will Google manage all these different fronts that it’s opening up? Telecommunications is a complicated business.
“You may be presuming something about what we will do should we in fact win this particular spectrum auction. I would be careful not to jump to any conclusions about what we will do if we have the rights to radiate in that frequency band. There are all kinds of ways of exercising that right. One of them is to build your own facilities. But there might be other answers that don’t require us to do that.”
Like lease capacity?
“Be a wholesaler of that capacity, there are a variety of business models. I’m not aware that any conclusions that have been reached at this point about what the optimal choice might be. For all I know it might differ from one area to another — there’s a different model for urban vs. rural areas. I just don’t know.”
I’d thought about taking Cerf to see the new Bruce Willis movie, “Live Free or Die Hard.” It’s about a big attack on the Internet, with hackers taking down crucial parts of the network. But he’d already seen it.
“I have. It’s the usual dramatic overstatement of vulnerability, although I will say that I am quite concerned about the potential hazards and vulnerability of the Internet as it exists today. There really are some serious problems there — denial of service attacks using zombies that have been created by invasion of the operating system, often by means of a vector going through the browsers, which are too willing to download and execute random pieces of Java code and have too much access to the right resources of the computer so that these Java code things can actually exploit, install trojan horses and things. It’s all pretty terrible.”
So will the nation’s crucial systems be brought down someday by a disgruntled former Department of Defense employee?
“I really don’t think that that’s likely to be the effect. You look at the worst case recent problem — that earthquake that severed some of the cables in Asia. Even there, though it was awful, there was very rapid recovery…. So the Internet’s actually been remarkably resilient in spite of all the things that are happening to it. I’ve been surprised at that.”
What does Cerf think about broadband service in the U.S., the country where this amazing network was developed?
“It’s embarrassing in some respects that we haven’t found a more effective way of bringing broadband services. I’m even concerned about the broadband that is available…. It’s not as fast as some of the other services in other countries — you can get a gigabit per second in Japan, full duplex for 8700 yen a month. It almost made me want to move to Kyoto.”
I also found out that Cerf and I have a very indirect personal connection. I mentioned that my grandfather helped build an early defense network, the Distant Early Warning radar system in Alaska and Canada that was created in the 1950s to watch for a Soviet attack. Cerf lit up and said that he was inspired to enter the field as a teenager in 1958, when he saw an enormous “SAGE” computer in California used to manage the network.