As use of the Internet as a key supply-chain transmission tool grows in popularity, issues are arising around Internet governance, as well as use and abuse of this open communications system.
For example, there's been a lot of press lately surrounding an announcement that California-based Cisco Systems and 10 other vendors have formed a group to push for ''open standards for broadband wireless Internet standards.''Also involved are Motorola, Broadcom, Texas Instruments, PaceMicro Technology, Toshiba, Bechtel Communications, Samsung Electronics, Electronic Data Systems, LCC International and KPMG Consulting International.
According to Cisco, the main concern is creating interoperability between wireless products from a number of vendors. But managers at Nortel and Lucent Technologies take a less sanguine view, at least privately. They charge that, at the very least, this sort of group isn't needed in a field where at least 150 organizations or forums are involved in developing telecomm standards worldwide.
And the announcement of the creation of the 11-company standards group came on the heels of allegations from major industry analysts such as Thomas Nolle, president of consultancy CIMI Corp. in Voorhees, N.J., that Cisco has been trying to stall development of a network layer switching standard to bolster its own proprietary technology. Not surprisingly, the company has denied these charges.
A QUESTION OF WHO IS RUNNING THE SHOW
These sorts of debates point up the importance that standards are playing in the evolution of the Internet, specifically, and global communication ingeneral. And they beg the question: Who's running the Internet standards game?
There are two main American bodies involved in developing and maintaining Internet standards - the Internet Society (ISOC), Reston, Va., and a subset of ISOC called the Internet Engineering Task Force.
Although the Internet Society is a well-recognized and established organization, the Internet Engineering Task Force is loosely organized and is not governed in any true sense, according to members who asked to remain anonymous.
''Under ISOC, the IETC is an ad hoc getting together of people involved in designing and developing Internet stuff. It operates in a practical sense largely by e-mail discussion group. Then about three or four times a year there's an IETF meeting where people get together face-to-face and try to finalize or start new areas of work,'' explained an industry source and IETF member.
IETF's purview is fairly large, he said. The group encompasses about 115 working groups that cover a number of broad Internet concerns. For example, one area deals with how Internet protocol traffic is carried on any and every type of data transmission equipment - from satellite to mobile phones, sonic fiber, cable TV and others.
''There are a whole bunch of working groups dealing with the carriage of Internet working-group traffic,'' he said.
Other working groups deal with the intricacies of routing Internet traffic from one user to another. And some groups are dealing with security issues, such as how to secure data on the Internet, or how companies can isolate themselves from the public behind firewalls.
Moreover, there are applications specialists concerned with developing standards for e-mail, sharing calendars or providing the ability to fax over the Internet.
The Internet Engineering Task Force hasn't concerned itself much with governance because it isn't a legal entity, this source explained.
However, within the Internet Engineering Task Force there is ''a small group involved with governance issues - the use of the Internet and the role and impact of the Internet on society at large.''
PARTICIPATION IS OPEN TO ALL INTERESTED
There's no official membership in the Internet Engineering Task Force because legally it doesn't exist. Anyone interested can log on to Internet Engineering Task Force discussion groups and start sharing their thoughts and expertise. Meetings are open to anyone who chooses to pay their own way and foot the bill for registration fees.
For example, the last Internet Engineering Task Force meeting in November attracted 2,000 people, all of whom are to some extent ''Internet literate.''
Concerned companies can volunteer to stage IETF meetings, but must be prepared to provide extensive equipment so that participants can share ideas directly online.
For example, the last session involved the direct use of 100 PCs, various operating systems and prints, as well as connections to 100 local area networks for high-speed laptop access.
For more information, visit www.ISOC.org or www.IETF.org.