Metcalfe's column: Opportunities in always-on internet access

The push is on to deploy high-speed, always-on residential internet access.

But be careful about what "high speed" means. In this day and age, unless you download at a speed faster than 1Mbit/sec, please don't say you have high-speed internet access. You'll be letting access providers off too easily.

Even on the off chance it gets to 56Kbit/sec, V.90, and ISDN, given the benefit of the doubt at 144Kbit/sec, are not high speed. Cable television modems (CTMs) and Digital Subscriber Lines (DSLs) can be high speed, unless they are throttled down, as mentioned below. An all-optical internet, including fibre to the home, could easily run at gigabits per second. Kilobits per second is low speed.

There's another debatable term in high-speed, always-on residential internet access. Don't just ask how high speed your internet access is. Also ask if it's always-on.

How will we measure always-on? First, we'll measure uptime. We'll hope that our access is up, say, 99 per cent of the time. Later, we'll measure latency. We'll hope that, say, 99 per cent of the time the internet responds in less than a tenth of a second.

A tenth of a second would be a big improvement. Today, if you want a weather report from the internet, sorry, but you'll have to wait for your PC to boot up, wait for your browser to launch, wait for your modem to initialise, wait for a dial tone, wait for your modem to dial your internet service provider (ISP), wait for your service provider to answer, wait for modem negotiation, wait for authentication, wait for protocol start, and wait for selected weather pages to download -- during which time the next Ice Age might sneak up on you.

If you've enjoyed Ethernets in big companies, you have some inkling about always-on internet access. But always-on is new territory for the masses, and probably even you at home. There will be many new applications and many surprises.

One surprise will be how internet access gets billed. Currently, the debate is whether internet access should be billed by the minute or at a flat rate per month. Neither of these is right for high-speed, always-on access.

The higher the speed and the more always-on your internet access, the more it makes sense to charge per month for speed and per packet for traffic. As the ratio of peak throughput to average throughput goes up, paying for the peak becomes unattractive for all but the heaviest users.

Stuck for now with flat-rate monthly billing, CTM and DSL providers are throttling down speeds to control the traffic they must carry through their long-haul networks. Multiplayer game enthusiasts and home Web masters complain bitterly about current efforts to throttle them down. Flat-rate monthly billing is to blame.

Again, it would be better to have flat monthly charges based on peak speeds of always-on service plus packet charges for traffic actually carried. Even better, charge less for packets that travel short distances.

But hey, rather than argue endlessly about internet pricing (the market should decide), let's brainstorm about opportunities opened up by always-on internet access. And be sure to consider what happens when always-on access is distributed through home LANs.

What if the latest weather report were always on the upper left of a screen in your kitchen? What if appliances could always know the time, outside temperature, and current energy rates? What if a bell rang each time you got new mail? What if buddies could invite you to chat without catching you dialled in? What would online shopping and auctions be like if you could look in on them at a glance, without all that power-on, boot-up, dial-in hoopla?

One frequent objection to always-on internet access is security -- always-on gives hackers time to break into your computer. Security is also raised by DSL partisans against shared-media CTMs. But this will soon be fixed. Security cannot for long be allowed to depend on physically disconnecting and powering off our computers.

There's a bright future in secure, always-on internet access, high speed or not.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe is often -- but not always -- online, awaiting your messages to metcalfe@idg.net

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