John Cioffi: I’m present­ly CEO and chair­man of ASSIA, Inc., which is a medium-sized com­pa­ny, about 150 employ­ees glob­al­ly, based in Northern California. I’m also a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus from Stanford University, where I taught for about twenty-three years in the area of elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing, specif­i­cal­ly dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I believe that I was induct­ed into the Internet Hall of Fame because of the area of dig­i­tal sub­scriber lines. About twen­ty, twenty-five years ago, I did the ini­tial designs that are used every­where today—there’s about a half a bil­lion DSLs around the world—and have the basic patents, did the designs and so forth for those DSL sys­tems at that time. 

Well, in that part of Internet lead­er­ship, basi­cal­ly get­ting high speeds to con­sumers pri­or to the time in the ear­ly 90s where we did this work, the only way to con­nect to the Internet was at a few thou­sand or maybe ten thou­sand kilo­bits per sec­ond on a voice­band modem. So the area of DSL basi­cal­ly took that up sev­er­al orders of mag­ni­tude to the megabits per sec­ond, today hun­dreds of megabit per sec­ond con­nec­tions are fea­si­ble on the cop­per con­nec­tions. So that enabled some of the new­er types of appli­ca­tions to exploit the high­er band­width, whether it was browsing—Internet browsers, or large file trans­fers, obvi­ous­ly video over the Internet and such are now all fea­si­ble because the basic access con­nec­tion to the con­sumer will sup­port the speeds that allow that to happen. 

Intertitle: Describe one of the break­through moments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant?

Cioffi: Well there’s one break­through moment that I’ll nev­er for­get. I still remem­ber the date, March 10th, 1993, where the pro­to­types for DSL that I had been involved in design­ing, many Stanford stu­dents had joined me as a small com­pa­ny at the time as well as a num­ber of pro­fes­sion­als. And we entered them into a com­pe­ti­tion which had some of the biggest com­pa­nies in the world it it, all vying for this inter­na­tion­al stan­dard to select the trans­mis­sion for­mats for DSL. And we sub­mit­ted a pro­to­type. The odds were stacked against us polit­i­cal­ly and oth­er­wise. But it per­formed so much bet­ter than all of the oth­er meth­ods, some­times a fac­tor of a hun­dred improve­ment over some of the oth­er sys­tems, ran four times faster, was much more resilient to noise, so forth. 

We were select­ed, despite all the pol­i­tics. And it was a unan­i­mous vote by the American National Standards Institute, and then it went to the International Telecommunications Union lat­er; it was stan­dard­ized there also. So I’ll nev­er for­get that day. And we knew that we had made it, so to speak, that day when they called our tech­nique’s name. 

Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weath­er anal­o­gy and explain why.

Cioffi: Well, I believe that the abil­i­ty of peo­ple around the world to be able to com­mu­ni­cate, which the Internet has essen­tial­ly enlarged sig­nif­i­cant­ly the last decade or two, is a very good thing. There’s some…bad trans­mis­sions, per­haps some good trans­mis­sions, but none of us is quite qual­i­fied nec­es­sar­i­ly to say which ones are bad and which ones are good. But that abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate, to draw infor­ma­tion about top­ics of inter­est to peo­ple, has been a very good thing and it con­tin­ues to grow. So I don’t believe there are any clouds in that sense over the Internet. Any tech­nol­o­gy of size, and the Internet is prob­a­bly as big as you can get in terms of size, will face its chal­lenges, whether they’re polit­i­cal, tech­no­log­i­cal, or oth­er­wise. But gen­er­al­ly speak­ing the Internet has faced a num­ber of those chal­lenges in the past and has con­tin­ued to grow and thrive. And it will sur­mount all the chal­lenges that’re before it today as well. And one of the things that I believe you’ll see is the access con­nec­tions. We should see over the next five to ten years a bil­lion peo­ple get­ting a bil­lion bits per sec­ond, if they need it or want to use it. And I believe there will be uses for it.

Intertitle: What are your great­est hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?

Cioffi: The great­est con­cern would be that some­how the vest­ed inter­ests of…whether it’s gov­ern­ments or large com­pa­nies, would pre­vent or reduce the inno­va­tion that has led to the Internet’s expan­sion. That has been a very good thing. It’s been opposed in the past by the same big com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments but has been tran­scend­ed and it’s been much to their advan­tage, because they make a lot more mon­ey today than they did pre­vi­ous­ly because of the Internet. And those chal­lenges con­tin­ue to abound today. In many cas­es, they’re seri­ous in the form of the net neu­tral­i­ty and equal access of all appli­ca­tions, con­sumers, inno­va­tors, to the band­width of the Internet. 

And it’s nev­er been com­plete­ly equal over time. That’s a mis­con­cep­tion. But to keep some lev­el of that neu­tral­i­ty present so that inno­va­tion can con­tin­ue to dri­ve it for­ward, and that’s gonna come from all of the peo­ple around the world, par­tic­u­lar­ly the small guys and lit­tle guys in many places. I’ve been one of them. I under­stand what it’s like to be there. Those are the true dri­vers of inno­va­tion in the world. And you don’t want to squeeze their voice out, even if you’re a big gov­ern­ment or a big com­pa­ny with a vest­ed inter­est because in the long run, you’re going to be bet­ter off also because of that. 

Well you would hope that every indi­vid­ual on Earth can be con­nect­ed. This large com­mu­nion, if you will, of dis­cus­sion, mes­sages, infor­ma­tion I think all in all leads to good things. Even though there may be some neg­a­tives that hap­pen as a con­se­quence of that. The aver­age is going to be pos­i­tive, and the more that peo­ple can com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er, the bet­ter the chance we have for human­i­ty as a human race. 

Intertitle: What action should be tak­en to ensure the best pos­si­ble future?

Cioffi: Well, if we knew what the best pos­si­ble future was then we could prob­a­bly define those actions. But I would not try to be so arro­gant as to pre­sume I knew what the best pos­si­ble future is. Each one of us has our own bias­es and thoughts on what is appro­pri­ate con­tent, or who should be able to access the Internet, and what does secu­ri­ty mean, and whose inter­est is it in. So, I don’t believe I could answer that ques­tion because I don’t know what the best pos­si­ble future is.

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