Internet Untethered: Internet Society Panel Debates the Future of Mobile Internet

By: Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Date: March 1, 2013

line break image

The mobile data network has changed dramatically over the past four years, largely due to the popularity of smartphones and tablets, and the innovative applications created for them. The Internet Society (ISOC) held a panel discussion concurrent with the Internet Engineering Task Force meeting in Atlanta to discuss how the next four years might unfold as the Internet becomes increasingly untethered.

“From the initial skeptical reaction to the Apple iPhone, people have taken these devices to places nobody would have imagined,” said moderator Leslie Daigle, chief Internet technology officer for the Internet Society. “People’s expectation is that there should be something of a seamless integration between the experience of the Internet in the wired world and the experience of the Internet from wireless broadband.”

Daigle said new mobile devices are impacting how data services evolve, how bandwidth is managed, and how applications work as more people interact with Web sites such as Wikipedia and Twitter via smartphones. She asked panelists to imagine how the mobile Internet might evolve over the next few years and whether or not it would remain a decentralized, distributed network of networks with low barriers to entry, built on open standards, and providing global connectivity.

Pete Resnick, principal engineer in the Office of the Chief Scientist at Qualcomm, said he is worried that the Internet is migrating toward locked-down devices controlled by vendors.

“Nowadays we have devices that we write applications for, but the applications are pretty locked down—and the platforms seem pretty locked down, too,” Resnick said. “If you’re a developer, you’re either writing for the Apple app or Google Play store, or maybe you’re still writing Blackberry apps. We’re locked down into those particular environments.”

Panelist Victor Kuarsingh, network architect for Rogers Communications, said it is impossible to predict how consumers will use the mobile data network in the future. “We’re seeing traffic growth that is two orders of magnitude more than it was two years ago,” Kuarsingh said. “Every time we attempt to anticipate users, we guess wrong. But we know they will use it for new, innovative things… Thing are happening very, very quickly in the mobile space, which makes it exceedingly challenging for operators.”

Cameron Byrne, technical staff architect at T-Mobile USA, agreed that mobile data traffic is growing exponentially and changing rapidly. Byrne is optimistic that mobile device manufacturers and application developers will continue to embrace open protocols to meet consumer demands for interoperability.

“One of the key things we are going to see in the next few years is how the silos provide greater integration with each other and greater integration with the Web overall,” Byrne predicted. “I think there will be a network effect as we see various services interact. For example, [Apple’s] FaceTime will be a more useful service if it can do WebRTC and Skype can do WebRTC… Hopefully these silos will become portals to broader any-to-any communications.”

Daigle asked panelists if it is possible for mobile applications to evolve into a more open platform, and, if so, how this might happen.

“Applications are in silos for business considerations,” Resnick said. “There are controls around apps because somebody has to make money at them. I think we can break out of it… but it takes an enormous amount of pressure from consumers. The fact is, people are going to Facebook, which is a closed environment. People are using FaceTime, which is not [an open] protocol. It’s tricky, and it’s not an engineering problem.”

Kuarsingh predicted that siloed applications, such as FaceTime and Skype, will adopt IETF protocols such as WebRTC and become interoperable because consumers will demand it. “My prediction is that WebRTC becomes a gateway protocol for the silos to speak to each other,” he said. “That’s what I’m excited about. The lure of someone on Skype being able to talk to someone on FaceTime through a common broker like WebRTC will be great.”

Kuarsingh said that the key to having the mobile Internet evolve into a more open environment is having more vendors and increased competition. “I like the concept of having more players,” he said. “It definitely helps even things out as you get enough people who want certain things to occur.”

Resnick said vendors of mobile platforms haven’t gotten to the point where they realize that opening up their platforms is good for business. “If some of the platforms were more open, that would allow technology to advance and innovation to happen. Then all boats would rise,” he said. “I don’t know what the catalyst will be for platforms to let go.”

Byrne argued that consumer demand will drive mobile platforms to openness. “It’s going to be the case where I want to call people across platforms,” he said. “The ability to do that is going to be crucial, and it is going to happen because consumers are going to make it happen.”

Panelists said they are hoping that the mobile Internet will continue to evolve toward providing a similar quality of service to that presently available on the wired Internet.

“I would like to see [mobility] not be a barrier to what you want to do,” Kuarsingh said. “I’m hoping that this is where we are going—whether you are on a tablet, a PC, or a Smart TV, the experience should be very seamless. But I’m not going to underestimate the amount of effort that it is going to take.”

Resnick countered that while he would like to have a similar experience from the data network whether the connection is wired or wireless, he would also like to see differentiated experiences for mobile devices. “We want to be able to customize and differentiate and innovate for mobile users,” he said, adding that people buy mobile devices because they want to use them for special, on-the-go purposes.