published Sunday, August 11th, 2013

In Chattanooga, Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalf talks about what's next for the Internet

Bob Metcalfe took the stage at Gig Tank’s Demo Day last week to be interviewed by U.S. Ignite CEO Bill Wallace about gigabit-per-second Internet speeds and entrepreneurship. The inventor of Ethernet cracked jokes, offered advice and predicted where the Internet will go next in the 45-minute interview, which ended in a standing ovation. 
Photo: GIGTANK
Bob Metcalfe took the stage at Gig Tank’s Demo Day last week to be interviewed by U.S. Ignite CEO Bill Wallace about gigabit-per-second Internet speeds and entrepreneurship. The inventor of Ethernet cracked jokes, offered advice and predicted where the Internet will go next in the 45-minute interview, which ended in a standing ovation. Photo: GIGTANK

Bob Metcalf wore a suit, a tie and bright red-and-yellow sneakers when he took the stage at Gig Tank’s Demo Day last week to be interviewed by U.S. Ignite CEO Bill Wallace about gigabit-per-second Internet speeds and entrepreneurship. The inventor of Ethernet cracked jokes, offered advice and predicted where the Internet will go next in the 45-minute interview, which ended in a standing ovation. Here are some of his thoughts, as recorded by reporter Shelly Bradbury.

Q: What do you think will be the next killer application of gigabit network?

A: I have one in mind. My favorite one. You all know that the Internet disrupted the U.S. Postal Service with electronic mail. And we disrupted the music industry with iTunes and similar stuff. We’ve done serious disruption to retail with websites like, say, Amazon. We’ve created a series of major industry disruptions. Well, there are some ahead. My favorite are education, energy and health care. They’re in serious needs of disruption.

Look at education. You know what a mooc is? It’s a massive online open course. The Internet is going to disrupt higher education in a very positive way. These moocs are the beginning of the disruption, and it’s fantastic.

Not everyone wants it to happen. The moocs have an unsolved problem: You’re taking a class with 100,000 other people. How do you get the interaction with the professor? How do you get peer-to-peer interaction and discussion? How do you create a scalable education community under this mooc model? This is going to be one of the killer apps of this gigabit network. High bandwidth, multiple location communication will somehow re-create the learning community.

One of the objections to moocs is that you’ll lose the personal interaction with the professor. And I say, yeah, you will. But moocs are a bad idea just like books were. You used to sit around the campfire and hear the story directly from the teacher. And now, thanks to books, we read the stories. Like Great Gatsby. I’ve never met F. Scott Fitzgerald. So yeah, moocs are a bad idea just like books.

Q: What parallels do you see between Silicon Valley and gigabit communities like Chattanooga today?

A: Well the early Internet was about building infrastructure and connecting things. It wasn’t initially valuable, but as we built applications it would become valuable. We had to make the infrastructure argument, and fortunately we made it. We built it, the applications came and the rest is history.

It happens every few years, over and over again. The first Ethernet ran at 2.94 megabits per second … and now you can get 100 gigabits. At each stage, people said, ‘Is that too much?’ And each time we said well, if we built it, they will come. They have so far. We’re seeing it happen right here in Chattanooga.

Q: How important is it for Chattanooga to connect with other cities like Austin or Kansas City?

A: Let me answer that by combining two things. The key to networking and the key to entrepreneurial innovation is critical mass. The Silicon Valley has critical mass. Austin does not have critical mass. In Chattanooga, you have to seek critical mass. It’s a struggle not to be an island, innovating with your own community. You have to make sure that island includes connections outward. And a good place to start is other gig cities. If you could get Kansas City and Chattanooga connected via the gigabit, then the research will be combined and more value will arise.

And on a related point, I have not heard enough about UTC in the last two days. I know that in the Boston area there are 100 universities, and universities are very important to the innovation system there. I want to hear more about UTC and other universities. Get those universities in the middle, more so than I’ve been able to detect while I’ve been here for two days. That’d be another piece of advice I’d leave.

Q: Do you think the value of networks grow in proportion to the symmetric bandwidth available from each device?

A. That is a very cool thing about the gigabit per second network here in Chattanooga. When you describe this gigabit network, it isn’t just that it’s fast, it’s that it’s symmetrical. The bandwidth we have in Austin and other cities is very asymmetrical. You can go one way. Your bandwidth here is completely symmetrical. You can upload as fast as you can download. That’s a big step forward.

And it’s dedicated. So on the systems we have, the bandwidth is shared among everyone in the building. Here, you all get a gigabit-per-second. It’s gigabit, it’s symmetrical and it’s dedicated. You all are so lucky.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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