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Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra
Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University
Version of 25 November 1994
© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1994
This is chapter 2 of a multi-part Monograph whose contents-page is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/NetNation.html
This document is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/NetN2.html
The Information Infrastructure movement has been primarily driven in the United States, but other advanced nations are considering related initiatives, Australia among them. In the United States, the main driving forces are the progressive convergence among:
The capacity of the fibre-optic cables used by the local and long-distance telephone operators is sufficient that the telecommunications companies ('telcos') are capable of competing with cable TV companies. The cable TV companies may soon be in a position to offer additional services which will be to some extent competitive with services offered traditionally by telcos. Satellite and terrestrial broadcast and narrowcast capabilities are increasingly competitive with particular cable-based services. The Internet is increasingly able to provide inexpensive services comparable to some of those offered by the telcos.
Added to this competitive cauldron is the fact that the telcos are very heavily regulated at both local and long-distance levels, whereas the cable TV companies are subject to somewhat less intervention, and the Internet has developed only during the last decade, and is largely free from government interference. The very large and influential telecommunications and entertainment companies are lobbying very hard for changes in, and reduction of, the regulatory regime.
The emergence of the current discussions can be traced through the following threads:
Developments in other countries are also of importance, some such as Canada to a considerable extent driven by events in the United States, and others, such as Singapore, which have harnessed the idea to fit their strategic objectives.
A great deal of the discussion in the business and public press has been about 'on-demand videos', 'edu-tainment' and 'info-tainment'. These often appear to be euphemisms for the existing television fare of films, games-shows, 'soap operas', and news, commentaries and documentaries designed primarily to entertain, in much the same way as an increasing proportion of newspapers are designed to titillate rather than to inform. People's interest in having access to light relief, and corporations' interest in satisfying that need, may be regarded as the primary purpose of the information infrastructure, or one of a number of purposes, or even a minor purpose.
The Internet represents a kind of counter-culture to corporation-provided entertainment and 'info-tainment'. The majority of the traffic is concentrated on inter-personal communication, access to the views of other individuals, and access to data. Its growth has been explosive, and it is sufficiently threatening to telcos, cable TV companies and value-added network providers, that it requires consideration in its own right.
Technically, the Internet is that collection of networks which are inter-connected using the a particular family of standards referred to as 'TCP/IP' (Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol). It is a highly non-hierarchical, 'democratically' structured, collaborative arrangement. Seemingly ironically, it emerged from the ARPAnet, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense to link the enormous number of private sector and university-based researchers working on defense-funded projects. In fact the irony is superficial: the military places a high priority on robustness, and dispersed, non-hierarchical networks exhibit greater resilience than centralised 'star-topology' networks. A brief overview of the Internet is provided in Attachment 1.
AARNet (the Australian Academic and Research Network) is the primary Australian segment of the Internet. It was established, and is run, under the auspices of the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Council (AVCC). From its inception in mid-1990 until at least the end of 1994, it has been funded primarily by the Universities and the CSIRO, with diminishing contributions from the Australian Research Council, and one significant grant from the Office of the Chief Scientist.
TCP/IP networks use a connectionless, 'packet-switching' mechanism. This means that there is no committed connection between the two end-points of a transmission, and that data does not travel in a single, unbroken stream from sender to receiver. Instead, the data is broken into packets (of about 200-2,000 bytes), sent from node to node along the network, and re-assembled at the destination.
Packet-switched networks are distinctly different from 'circuit-switched' networks such as the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and on-line sessions between workstations and servers. These dedicate a series of arcs to make up a connection, and commit them for the duration of a session or call, rather than just for the time it takes to send a single message. The packet-switching approach denies priority to messages within pre-arranged conversations, and as a result real-time transmissions such as voice and video can sound and appear jerky to the receiver, unless sufficiently large transmission capacity is available. In return, a packet-switched network makes much more efficient use of the arcs and nodes in the network, provides much greater total throughput, and hence a given network capacity can support a greater volume of traffic.
Each node on the network (roughly speaking, that means the gateway processor on each organisation's internal network) co-operates with the remainder by acting as a switch or exchange, and passing data along towards its target. In order to do this, it has to maintain a set of routing tables which determine where, depending on its ultimate objective, each packet has to be sent next. Exhibit 1 provides a schematic representation of the conceptual structure of the Internet.
The Internet emerged during the 1980s from a predecessor, the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency's ARPANet. Since AARNet was implemented in 1990, it has grown at a dramatic rate, initially in terms of the number of corporate networks it connected, and continuously in terms of the volume of data it carries. It is essentially a non-hierarchic network, i.e. there is no central controlling point (although there is a central service point for management and trouble-shooting). Its functioning depends on co-operation among many processors and hence also among the organisations which own them.
To the end-user, AARNet is almost transparent. It provides an extended address-space of machines and users, which comprises the entire worldwide Internet. It has high resilience to downtime on individual nodes and arcs, and very high reliability and efficiency. The delivery time for a message is well under a second anywhere within Australia, and usually under a second anywhere in the world (Kahin 1992, Huston 1993). This is much faster than physical mail. It is also much more convenient than fax, because the data arrives in a form that is machine-readable as well as human-readable. The speed and convenience of data transmission results in greater immediacy in human communications. This has unleashed an explosion of new ideas in a wide array of disciplines, to the extent that AARNet, and the Internet generally, are quickly bringing about a revolution in research practice, which is in the process of migrating into many other spheres.
The Internet has spawned an extraordinary explosion in creativity. Vast amounts of inter-personal communication are undertaken using it, and large numbers of documents are accessible from servers located not only in North America, but also in many other countries throughout the world. Outside North America, Australia is one of the most vigorous participants, both in terms of usage and contributions.
Initially, access to data on the Internet required considerable technical capability; but the days of obscure services such as 'ftp' and 'archie' are quickly receding. Important examples of contemporary services include:
Attachment 2 reviews technological developments which have resulted in these electronic support services. Later sections discuss the services in greater detail.
With professional-quality services now available, the kinds of documents which are accessible via the Internet are no longer limited to abstruse computer science papers, discussions about pop-groups, films and life on the net, games software and university student polemics. For example, university library catalogues are accessible over it; specialist collections of scientific papers and data can be located using it; government committees make their discussion papers available over it; lobby groups prepare their submissions to government committees on it; and government agencies in places as remote as Washington DC, California, Wisconsin, Tasmania and now in Canberra, publish reports, Bills, submissions and proceedings on servers connected to it. To sustain some semblance of order and accessibility within the Internet's constructive anarchy, programs busy themselves constructing directories of participating sites and people, and registers of documents.
The services are maturing beyond structured data and text. Sound, graphics and images can also be transmitted. Text messages can be delivered to fax machines, circumventing the telcos' much more expensive directly-dialled fax services. Synchronous conversations are being supported, particularly in text, but also using sound. Video (moving-image) transmission is being trialled in many locations, and may well make the 'video-phone' widely available before the telcos can launch 'official' telephone-with-picture services. If it were left alone, the Internet, or rather corporations exploiting it, may well mature into alternative value-added telecommunications service-providers, in direct competition with telcos, and perhaps cable TV operators, in respect of at least some of their mainstream services.
In a decade's time, the Internet may prove to have been just an experiment along the way to the inter-network of the early twenty-first century. Nonetheless, its exponential growth, the scale it has achieved, the services it provides, and the vibrancy of the electronic communities it has spawned, have attracted the attention of telcos, cable TV companies, and governments.
Development of the Internet protocol was funded by the U.S. defense establishment, and undertaken by scientists to satisfy their own needs. The resultant connectivity, and data and software resources, were originally accessible primarily by scientists and other researchers. As Internet services matured, access to them became more desirable. Companies and government agencies have increasingly secured access not only for their research staff, but also for executives, managers and operational staff. Indeed, the volume of traffic generated by non-academic users overtook that from academics as long ago as 1991. It is clear that companies providing telecommunications-based services can no longer ignore the Internet, and are no longer ignoring it.
The Internet represents a prototype of one particular model of the information infrastructure. The purpose of this section is to provide an outline of the technical features of the emergent Australian information infrastructure.
In pursuing this analysis, it is necessary that a number of factors be borne in mind:
The design of a networked nation needs to be such that users are unaware of the technical features upon which they depend. Instead, they need to be able to think in terms natural to them, yet still gain access to, exploit, learn more about, and contribute to, their electronic environment. It is therefore conventional and useful to distinguish two levels: the infrastructure. and the services which depend on it. This section distinguishes between the two concepts.
Infrastructure is, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, "a basic framework or underlying foundation", upon which the remainder of a structure can be built. The distinction between foundation and superstructure is somewhat arbitrary, but infrastructure is generally depended upon by at least one, and generally several, other elements. Common-use infrastructure commonly requires collaborative approach, and either public investment or government-coordinated private sector investment. Given public confidence that the infrastructure is, or will be, in place, the other necessary elements can reasonably be expected to be invested in by individual corporations, government agencies and people. Exhibit 2 identifies the information infrastructure's inter-related layers and elements.
It is possible to devise a variety of possible architectures for an information infrastructure. For the policy purposes being addressed here, it is not appropriate or necessary to enter into lengthy debate about the physical elements and their inter-relationships. It is necessary, however, to have clearly in mind a 'conceptual' or 'logical' architecture, on which the discussion can focus. Exhibit 3 provides a graphical representation of a conceptual architecture, which is derived from the relatively open and dynamic Internet prototype, rather than the relatively closed and static models of the telecommunications and pay-TV companies.
It is important to appreciate that the existing Australian telecommunications infrastructure, economics and politics differ in important ways from those in Europe and North America. Europe continues to use the 'PTT' approach, whereby a single government authority provides telecommunications and postal services (and in many cases additional services such as consumer banking and long-distance bus transport). During the last twenty years, Australia has undertaken a policy of deregulation, in order to migrate towards the American model of private-sector-provided but necessarily monopolistic tail-end connections and local calls, but competitive long-distance, mobile and additional, emerging services.
For local telephone networking and services, Australia has a single provider, the massive government business enterprise, Telecom/Telstra. Since 1993, there are two long-distance operators, Telecom and Optus, later to be joined by a third. There are three mobile telephone services providers, Telecom, Optus and Vodafone. Satellite services exist and are being extended. But whereas 60% of the population of the United States has access to television via co-axial cable into the home, the first such cable was laid in Australia only in the fourth quarter of 1994, to some 50,000 homes on Sydney's affluent North Shore. Although licences have been issued for both microwave and cable services, their viability and coverage are yet to become clear.
Many different transmission technologies are available and becoming available, to support both the backbones and the tail-ends. They are outlined in Exhibit 4.
Discussion about these capabilities has sometimes been couched in such a manner as to suggest that one particular technology will be the winner, and the others losers. In respect of particular services, that may well turn out to be true; but there is a wide array of services, and the diversity of both demand and technology characteristics is so great that most of the available transmission media are likely to find niches which they can dominate.
The brisk developments in these various technologies have resulted in progressive redefinition of the businesses in which the various companies are engaged. A telco used to concentrate on telephone services, but fax traffic has become very important to its customers and its revenue generation; and the bandwidth it has available enables it to now contemplate offering additional services more widely, some of which edge into what was previously the entertainment sector. Meanwhile, cable and narrowcast TV companies are recognising the demand by consumers for more than just choice among multiple concurrent film broadcasts. They want the ability to provide feedback up the line, and it is claimed that they want 'videos-on-demand'.
If cable and narrowcast TV companies deliver these capabilities, they are capable of offering alternatives to some telco services. Computer users, in the meantime, have hired basic telecommunications capacity from the telcos, strung these links together into networks, connected them via such means as the Internet, and now, in effect, offer services which directly compete with those of the telcos. The popularity of the Internet has forced commercial providers of electronic mail services to provide gateways to it. Hence several hitherto distinct kinds of corporation are in the process of rapid convergence.
An important outcome of these developments in technological capability has been an expectation of ubiquitous computing and communications, and freedom from the tyranny of location-dependence. A person's primary place of work is increasingly only one of the locations from which he or she seeks electronic services, and to which the infrastructure must reach. Many people work at least partly from home; airports make space available in which travellers can make connections; plans are in place to provide connections in locations such as newsagents, the foyers of office-buildings and shopping centres, and taxis; and new-model aircraft are being designed to provide mid-air digital connection to terrestrial networks.
This section provides an outline of the kinds of activities which are being, and will be, facilitated by the Australian and other national information infrastructures. Some of these are new forms of activity, and some are replacements of existing activities.
A wide diversity of services has already been delivered in particular contexts, and many additional services, variants and combinations will emerge (e.g. Goldstein & Heard 1991, Kehoe 1992, LaQuey 1992). The information infrastructure must make all of these available in order to bring about a networked nation. The list in Exhibit 5 is meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive, and is roughly structured according to the tail-capacity needed to support it.
In general terms at least, it is desirable that the infrastructure be capable of supporting any and all services, despite their potentially different requirements. For some services, however, special features will be essential, in particular those outlined in Exhibit 6. It appears likely that different carrier technologies will have and retain competitive advantage over others in relation to services with particular 'special feature' profiles. This implies either multiple infrastructures, or multiple backbones within a single, integrated national information infrastructure.
To facilitate commercial provision of services, it is important that the infrastructure support convenient forms of network-based value-transfer. Current approaches based on the transmission 'in clear' of credit-card numbers need to be initially supplemented by encrypted transmission of value-data, and in due course replaced by more sophisticated alternatives such as electronic cash based on chip-cards. This requires the incorporation of appropriate features into the infrastructure.
The diversity of services available even now on the Internet is considerable, and new forms are continually emerging. It would therefore be futile, and misleading to provide a fixed classification and listing of the services that the infrastructure must support - the objectives of the infrastructure initiative are not just effectiveness and efficiency, but flexibility, adaptability and open-endedness. Nonetheless, the taxonomy of existing services in Exhibit 7 may be of assistance in debates about the infrastructure's architecture.
This is chapter 2 of a multi-part Monograph. Chapter 3 is at http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/NetN3.html.
The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.
From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.
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This document is at www.rogerclarke.com/II/NetN2.html