Is It Time to Build a Better Internet?

The Internet is in trouble. To what degree depends on just how susceptible you are to sensationalist arguments. The IPv4 issue has proven to be manageable, but someday we’ll have to convince the relevant parties to implement the permanent solution, be it IPv6 or something else entirely.

Other issues are popping up all over the place, from ancient and failing infrastructure to serious and ever-present security concerns – not to mention the endangerment of the fundamental principles of the Internet itself. The time has come to take the bull by the horns and build a better Internet. This isa problem worth solving, and the old “pick any two” proverb doesn’t apply here. It won’t be cheap or easy, but the end result will be good for everyone. Fortunately, we have a precedent to follow for such a monumental task.

What Does a Better Internet Look Like?

In order to work towards a better Internet, we have to identify our priorities and define “better.” If we’re designing a new Internet from scratch, we need to focus on three priorities:

  1. Security

As information about our world and the individuals in it transitions to a digital medium, the basic right to privacy and personal safety is in jeopardy.

Physical theft is a dangerous task one is unlikely to get away with. Electronic theft is difficult, but your chances of getting caught are smaller. The good guys are struggling to keep up with the bad guys on this one. But if we’re building a system based on the best security practices known at the moment, we stand a better chance of safeguarding that information.

  1. Reliability

In a world where every aspect of our civilization relies on the Internet, downtime can have disastrous consequences. We have seen minor disruptions in the past, but we have not yet experienced an outage large enough to affect entire nations or continents. If we’re proactive, we have the power to make sure we never do experience one.

  1. Accessibility

As our world economy becomes even more reliant on the Internet, Internet access will be as critical to survival in modern society as electricity and indoor plumbing. And yet, in America, the price of broadband Internet access is still a barrier of entry for some families. Living in America without Internet access in your home isn’t like living with the Amish. It would be like trying to live with the Amish without owning any land. How can you be expected to survive if you don’t have the means to participate in society?

At the bottom of the priorities list should be speed and performance. If we’re trying to build a better Internet, we should solve the hard problems first.

Using the Highway System as a Precedent

The job of improving the Internet is so mind-bogglingly huge that it would be easy to throw up our hands and say “it’s too much.” I agree that it won’t be easy, and I certainly harbor no illusions that it will be cheap or quick. But one lesson we can learn from history is that it isn’t impossible. No analogy is perfect, but allow me to draw a comparison to a previous technological achievement that has a lot to teach us: our current highway system.

The final cost of the interstate system was over $400 billion (in today’s dollars) and took 35 years. Like the current Internet infrastructure, that original highway system was not designed for the current demands of the motoring public, but we continue to upgrade and update the roads to keep pace with traffic levels.

In terms of our current Internet infrastructure, it also wasn’t built to handle the current demand. However, while upgrades and maintenance are taking place, not enough is being done to improve the system as a whole. Unlike the publicly-owned highway system, our Internet infrastructure is owned by private companies who are not properly incentivized by the common good.

So How Do We Build a Better Internet?

The best way to go about actually building a better Internet would be to approach it the same way we approached the interstate system: classify the Internet as a public utility. When you consider its impact on the everyday lives of citizens of any developed nation, it should be administered in the same way as electricity, water, and public roads and transportation.

This utility should be maintained by the government or some tightly-regulated private entity. Say what you will about the effectiveness of our government, but if there is one thing they can do right, it’s manage public utilities. On the plus side, public broadband networks have been shown to be cheaper than their private counterparts, but the pressure from these private companies has stunted the growth of municipal broadband. We can solve this problem if we’re really serious about it.

We’re quickly reaching the point where the reasons for doing something to improve the Internet outweigh the reasons not to act. How do we get started? Some, like Danny Hillis, have suggested creating a second, more secure Internet for our most sensitive transactions. In a conversation on the subject with a network security expert friend, he outlined a dozen roadblocks to improving the existing Internet.

I would certainly never challenge his authority or the veracity of his arguments, but this is a very real problem and we have to start somewhere.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons)

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