Concerns over NGI threaten funding

Congress may balk at funding the Clinton administration's $100 million Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative because of the concerns of some legislators about the structure of the multiple-agency researchproject and the apparent exclusion of rural states from the process.

Members of a Senate subcommittee last week advised the federal architects of the initiative the goal of which is to increase the speed of the Internet up to 1 000 times to "go back to the drawing board" to restructure the program so that it will have clear agency leadership and have more representation from rural states.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications said he was very concerned about the makeup of the Advisory Committee for High-Performance Computing which was formed by President Clinton in February to provide direction for the NGI initiative.

Most of the members on the committee are from urban and coastal areas Burns said and of the 20 members of the committee 11 are from California. He said only eight states are represented on the committee.

Other senators said the current draft proposal for the initiative would exclude rural universities from obtaining grant money to connect academic institutions to the fledgling NGI network test bed. One goal of the NGI is to connect 100 universities and research institutions at speeds 100 times faster than today's Internet and to connect 10 sites at speeds 1 000 times faster than the Internet.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded grants to 35 research institutions throughout the country that will allow them to connect to NSF's very high-speed Backbone Network Service to help form the emerging next-generation network.

"Why proceed with a proposal that will isolate the rural universities?" said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "This proposal leaves us out entirely. If we're going to have access to this we're going to have to have greater access to funding. Why don't you use your public money to ensure access to rural America? You go back to the drawing board."

Adding Rural Constituents

Tom Kalil senior director of the National Economic Council and the administration's point man on the NGI initiative said the administration soon will be adding members from rural states to the advisory committee."We think that's a legitimate concern " Kalil said. "We're going to make a special effort to add some members that will represent rural constituents."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he is concerned about the funding which the president requested be distributed among five agencies including the Defense Energy and Commerce departments NSF and NASA. He said the project appears to be "strewn across the government" with no clear focus. "I cannot find the lines of authority in this effort. Or is it just going to be these agencies on their own doing their own thing?"

Wyden said the concept for developing the NGI has bipartisan support but there is a "real danger" that Congress will not fund it if the agency structure and rural representation questions are not resolved.

The agencies involved in the project many of which were involved in the creation of the networks that blossomed into today's Internet are committed to cooperating in the development effort Kalil said.

"It's a legitimate issue but I think the agencies are working together and there's a clear understanding of the different roles in this program. I remain very optimistic about congressional support for the initiative. They raised valid concerns. We will address them."

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