Are Private Networks Going to Change the Internet Forever?

A growing number of businesses believe that the internet is broken and that it can’t be fixed – so they’re creating their own gated communities instead. We’ve already seen the explosive growth of peer-to-peer networks, and now companies are working on private networks for email, data transfer and broadband video. In much the same way that many websites have members-only areas that non-subscribers can’t access, these gated communities will only be available to paying customers.
Jeftel were one of the first companies who had seen enough of the internet and decided that the only way to eliminate spam and viruses was to abandon email altogether and set up a private network, so it created a peer-to-peer connection between the sender’s PC and the recipient’s. Although the messages looked and worked just like normal emails, they didn’t go through the usual networks or mail servers; as a result, you couldn’t receive messages from anyone who didn’t have a Jeftel account. This effectively meant that email scams and viruses were virtually eliminated. Unfortunately, this approach also led to perfectly legitimate emails being lost, as if the sender wasn’t part of the Jeftel private network, their email was unceremoniously discarded.
At BT they have taken the whole idea of creating an alternative internet to a whole new level. They have had a private network handling Voice over IP calls for some time, and they are also developing a video-on-demand service that will use ADSL to transmit, with the video originating from within the company’s own network rather than across the internet.
So what happenend to the whole idea of the internet as a utopia, where everyone has access to something and things always go smoothly? The problem is that it’s a good idea in theory, but it’s based on a rather naive view of human nature. The reality, unfortunately, is that if something can be abused, it will be – which is why we’re all spending a small fortune on zapping spam, fighting viruses and upgrading to ever-faster broadband connections to compensate for the lag on video clips and downloads. As BT consultant Graham Whitehead once told the Irish Internet Association: “The internet is dead, or dying; it’s full of viruses, worms and porn, and you have to wear a Kevlar suit before you go online.”
A small but powerful minority is spoiling the internet for everyone and is forcing more and more businesses to consider placing greater emphasis on their own private networks for communication purposes rather than the internet. Although it was never really a viable long-term business strategy, Jeftel’s private email network offered a far more reliable service than a normal email service. Similarly, BT can maximise network performance and reduce problems by using it’s own network for VoIP and delivering video over private networks.
In most cases, private networks won’t make any difference to your everyday web browsing. You’ll still be able to find out about ninjas, see daft animations and do all the things that you’re used to doing online. However, as the internet gets busier there is a chance it will become more anarchic and less reliable, and as a result it’s likley that we’ll see more and more private networks.
Many private networks are offered as options by ISPs. For example, the BBC already has deals with Pipex to provide broadband video content via it’s iPlayer service. If someone from a foreign ISP attempts to access the service, they are automatically redirected to a restricted version of their on-demand content. Although it is primarily a licensing issue – there are various copyright issues that prevent the BBC from providing broadband video to non-UK users – it’s also a useful tactic to prevent too many visitors from putting a strain on their servers. In effect, the BBC has turned the UK into a form of private entertainment network.
If the performance of the internet continues to degrade, ISPs may begin to compete by offering even more subscriber-only services rather than trying to offer broadband for 50p less than their competitors. It seems ironic, though, that only a few years after AOL and CompuServe were derided for their walled-garden approach to the internet, it seems that subscribers-only private network approach might not have been so silly after all.

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