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.