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Published on 07/17/2000

One of the Internet's founding fathers is coming to the Twin Cities Tuesday and he has a word he wants to whisper in our ears about our future on the Internet:


And if that didn't catch your attention, maybe this will:

``I think there's a gold rush marketplace there.''

Lawrence Roberts, the Internet pioneer who in 1969 created ARPANET, the Net's direct precursor, foresees a day in the not-distant future when first telephone service, then radio and finally television will be assimilated by the Internet as the preferred method of transmission.

``It's really not a matter of if - but a matter of when,'' Roberts said last week in an interview from Palo Alto, Calif., where he is getting a start-up company, Caspian Networks Inc., off the ground as its chairman and chief technology officer.

Roberts is scheduled to talk about the future of the Internet at the Marriott Southwest Hotel in Minnetonka Tuesday, detailing the technology changes that he believes will allow the Internet to swallow broadcasting.

The present barriers to presenting the ``streaming video'' of the quality that TV now offers will be overcome in a few years by faster transmission over the essentially the same cables and telephone lines we have now, he said confidently. The Internet presently can carry 100 gigabytes of information a second, ``and that will have to be increased by a factor of 1,000 within the next five years to support the traffic we're talking about,'' he said.

``My prediction is we'll have people who will be watching TV on the Internet by 2007,'' he said.

``They'll be able to choose to watch anything they want at any time,'' he said, describing how the future's Internet will allow people to find stations around the country - maybe even around the world - and watch everything from news programs to movies on their schedule, not the schedule set by the networks.

The networks themselves will find their influence waning as local stations suddenly find they can find access to millions of viewers for an insignificant cost, he added.

``Anyone can create a network overnight,'' he said.

Roberts' vision of the future may have a little of the feel of that scene from the opening of the 1967 movie ``The Graduate,'' where Dustin Hoffman's character is taken aside by an older friend of the family and told his future can be summed up in one word: ``Plastics.''

For the 1960s, it was prescient, funny and maybe a little chilling. Does Roberts' vision mean 160 different versions of CBS's ``Survivor'' in our futures, one for each channel currently available on cable TV?

Perhaps, but Roberts said he sees a chance for local TV stations to act like networks, creating programs that potentially can be watched by millions far outside the range of their antennas.

Those antennas will become less valuable, and stations will have to focus on content and distribution. In his ideal vision, viewers might pay a flat fee of $10- to $15-a-month to Internet Service Providers for access, and the TV providers will be reimbursed by the ISPs for providing the programming.

``People will go out and start creating Amazons when this starts to catch on,'' he said, referring to the dot-com Gold Rush epitomized by amazon.com. ``Maybe we won't call it the dot-com. Maybe we will call them dot-tvs or dot-radios.''

There may be a future for advertising on the new Internet TV for viewers who don't want to pay for access, Roberts said. And he is not fazed by the possibility that so many ``dot-tvs'' and ``dot-radios'' will sprout up that viewers will have problems finding exactly what they want - or that the providers will be able to rise about the herd to draw enough viewers.

The industry will compete, consolidate and evolve, Roberts said. ``I think the small business will be able to compete with the large business very well,'' he said.

Roberts said he couldn't envision e-commerce or even e-mail when he was a 32-year-old scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles in charge of the Advanced Research Projects Agency's ARPANET for the U.S. Department of Defense.

ARPANET was a single network linking some of the nation's research computers - the big, whirling mainframes of the 1960s - and Roberts said he actually did envision a network that would connect all the computers in the world.

It's just that the now ubiquitous personal computer wasn't invented until a decade later and wouldn't come into widespread use until the 1980s.

Roberts, who now works in Silicon Valley, is part of the group of four men who are now widely credited with the birth of the Internet - Leonard Kleinrock, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn. All are still involved in its further development through associations with universities or private for-profit and non-profit companies or both.

Leslie Brooks Suzukamo can be reached at lsuzukamo@pioneerpress.com or (651) 228-5475.

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