Father of Internet breaks barriers, boosts profits At MCI, Cerf heads projects to link world

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Vinton Cerf, a key Internet architect, sees his invention improving the world.

MCI Communications Corp., his employer, sees it improving profits.


MCI is betting that Cerf, often called the father of the Internet, can parlay his decades of computer expertise at Stanford University and the Defense Department into a successful push into the $2.2 billion-a-year market for Internet services.

"He's viewed as a visionary, and all companies, particularly in an area changing as fast as the Internet, need someone who can think three to five years down the road," said William Deatherage, an analyst at Bear Stearns & Co.


Cerf's know-how is yielding results. Internet-related ventures at the No. 2 U.S. long-distance company churned out $100 million in revenue last year. That's more than the $80.7 million generated by Netscape Communications Corp., the company with the hot Internet stock.

Cerf, 52, supervised construction of MCI's Internet network, one of the world's largest, which offers businesses and consumers everything from electronic mail to document sharing. And he designed MCIMail, an early product that put e-mail on the map.

MCI recently hooked up with Microsoft Corp. and Digital Equipment Corp. to develop so-called "intranets" that let companies link employees via computers worldwide. Although he's not the front-man for the venture, Cerf is working behind the scenes as MCI's head of data architecture.

"Government had a key role in developing the Internet and continues to have policy role," Cerf said in a recent interview. "Companies are the only way it will become an infrastructure."

Telecommunications companies worldwide are rushing to build that infrastructure -- the lines, switches and software that will let them offer more than plain old phone service to shrewd customers.

Phone companies have an additional incentive to build: Customers link to the Internet mainly over phone lines, and that extra traffic adds up to extra dollars.

MCI saw its calling volume surge 21 percent in the first quarter -- more than the increases at rivals AT&T; Corp. and Sprint Corp. -- mainly because of booming Internet use.

Amid the drive for profits, though, Cerf has definite ideas about where the Internet is going.


"The Internet is nothing if not an instrument of freedom," he said.

Still the academic, Cerf sees his invention tearing down the world's communications barriers -- letting scientists, dissidents and ordinary folks share information. Communication can only make the world a better place, Cerf says.

It's a philosophy that keeps one foot firmly in the classrooms of Cerf's early days.

He taught electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University between 1972 and 1976 before working at the Defense Department, where the Internet was spawned, from 1976 to 1982. He became vice president of MCI's digital information services from 1982 to 1986 and returned to MCI in 1994.

Cerf's main contribution to the Internet has been his work on TCP/IP, the common language spoken by computers throughout the Internet. The language is what lets computers around the world, and the people who use them, communicate.

He spends 10 hours each day on the Internet, sleeping only a few hours at night.


"As with all successes, there are thousands of fathers," Cerf says when asked why he is referred to as the father of the Internet.

Cerf says he knew the Internet would be a big deal in the late 1980s when public Internet networks began to mushroom in places other than universities and the government.

He said companies like MCI are fueling that expansion. He sees the day when computers will scan through thousands of pages of newspapers and magazines, picking the items people want and casting aside the rest.

Alliances like the one between MCI and News Corp. are developing products where satellites broadcast information, computers download it and customers retrieve it either on TV or PC.

Cerf thinks electronic commerce on the Internet will be safe within 5 years, but that nothing will be foolproof. He says threats to privacy and the fear that computers will steal jobs are exaggerated.

On whether the Internet is creating a gap between information haves and have-nots, Cerf is reconciled. "The problem is likely to solve itself in the economic realm," he said.


Cerf's determination to uncap the Internet's potential doesn't show signs of letting up any time soon.

"This is not a story with an end," he said.

MCI is hoping he's right.

Pub Date: 5/27/96