Vinton Cerf launches his volley in the debate on the Internet traffic of WorldCom vs. AT&T UPDATED 8/30 12 PM

August 29, 2002

5 Min Read
Cerf Weighs In on AT&T-vs.-UUNet

The war of words and research building between WorldCom Inc. (OTC: WCOEQ) and AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) just got hotter.

It started when WorldCom filed for bankruptcy last month, launching AT&T into the catbird's seat while president and CEO-designate David Dorman jawed away about his beleaguered competitor (see AT&T's Dorman Weighs In on WorldCom). Since then, it seems AT&T hasn’t passed up a single opportunity to tell the world that it's ready to take over should WorldCom's UUNet subsidiary go dark (see Whither WorldCom's Network? and AT&T Moves In for the Kill).

Contrary to reports that UUNet carries between 30 and 50 percent of all Internet traffic, AT&T has said that both it and WorldCom carry approximately 13 percent of all traffic each, and that migrating a large chunk of stranded UUNet customers to its network would be no problem at all -- in fact, it would be a pleasure.

Now WorldCom's talking back. In an interview with Light Reading Thursday, Vinton Cerf, WorldCom’s senior vice president of Internet architecture and technology, spoke out about AT&T’s claims.

“They’re suffering from network envy and wishful thinking,” Cerf said. “I think AT&T has a real problem.”

The RHK Inc. data AT&T used to support its network claims is dubious, Cerf says, since no one really knows how much traffic any one network carries (see RHK: Internet Growth OK).

WorldCom, for instance, collects data on how much peak capacity its customers’ networks are utilizing, he says. But that doesn’t translate into actual traffic numbers. “The data are not necessarily commensurate,” he says. “I don’t think it’s accurate.... I don’t see how they could come to the conclusion that we carry [13 percent] each. There’s no data to support that.”

"It's very hard to get traffic data," John Ryan, the chief analyst at RHK, acknowledges. "[But] we've worked long and hard to get it, and we got it." He says his firm used a number of different methods to obtain the numbers it published, including monitoring traffic on several large service provider networks. He wouldn't comment on whether or not RHK had access to monitor UUNet's numbers.

"If WorldCom is claiming that they have no way to measure their traffic... their network is not optimized," says Hossein Eslambolchi, CTO of AT&T and president of AT&T Labs. He says AT&T's traffic measurements are in line with the RHK numbers.

Cerf points to other studies, such as recent reports from TeleGeography Inc., Telcordia Technologies Inc., and Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), that don’t talk about traffic numbers but do show that WorldCom connects to twice as many autonomous systems as AT&T, or that it has many more reachable IP addresses than do its competitors.

Eslambolchi says that WorldCom is missing the point. "Just because you're connected to more networks, doesn't mean anything," he says. "The fact is that we are tied with UUNet [on traffic], and that we have more broadband subscribers." Eslabolchi says that broadband users account for 14 times more traffic than narrowband users.

Regardless of how much traffic each network runs, Cerf says there’s no way AT&T could seamlessly integrate a large portion of UUNet’s customers if the unthinkable were to happen.

“The company suffers from what one could call hubris,” Cerf says. “My conclusion is that the AT&T guys are overreaching if they think they could absorb UUNet’s traffic. Moreover, the likelihood of them having to do that is close to zero.”

That’s because WorldCom has no intention of shutting down its UUNet network, Cerf maintains. “In fact, we’re doing better now than before we filed for Chapter 11,” he says, pointing out that the company is now exempt from paying interest on its debt payments. AT&T might be hoping UUNet folds, he says, “but it isn’t going to happen.”

Furthermore, he says, AT&T’s attempt to lure customers to change providers isn’t going to work. “In my experience, customers don’t move unless they have a reason,” he says. “It’s a big pain to switch service providers. This is the largest broadband network in the world,” he says. “Why would [customers] move?”

What could force a move would be a decline in the quality of service on the network, he says. But he insists that hasn’t happened to the UUNet network.

Up to now, AT&T's downplayed WorldCom’s importance in keeping the Internet up and running. Indeed, several AT&T staff members have been among those alleging that WorldCom executives pumped up Internet traffic growth numbers during the boom years and are at least partially responsible for blowing the Internet bubble that led to the current downturn (see Did WorldCom Puff Up the Internet Too?).

Cerf, predictably, disagrees. “Those numbers were a legitimate characterization of customer demand,” he insists. “If you don’t build the network out to meet anticipated demand, you’re doing everyone a disservice.” He says that the anticipated demand numbers didn’t lie, since during the boom years customers were asking for a lot of capacity.

“If a customer comes and asks for a DS3, your first reaction isn’t going to be, let’s take a look at your business plan to see if this is a good idea,” he says. But he acknowledges that "some people could confuse that for traffic statistics… That’s how some people interpreted it.”

Meanwhile, Cerf says WorldCom is determined not to let its competitors get too far ahead while it struggles through its bankruptcy proceedings.

He insists, for instance, that the company remains focused on developing its next-generation product line. “It’s fair to say that we’re not pouring a ton of money into [new service developments],” he says. “But we’re still continuing with R&D. When we emerge from Chapter 11… we don’t want to be offering two-year-old products.” Last week, WorldCom announced a new global managed firewall solution.

Cerf says he doesn’t know which specific services will drive the industry recovery everyone is waiting for. “Instead of asking what the next killer app will be, you should ask what’s the next killer app that will generate revenue,” he says.

Applications like email and instant messaging aren't going to cut it, he says. One area he thinks might be hot is the entertainment industry, where people seem willing to pay for emergent bandwidth-intensive services.

Cerf isn't expecting to see any signs of industry recovery, though, until the latter part of next year at the earliest.

— Eugénie Larson, Reporter, Light Reading

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