Next State and Local Internets

It may not be Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, but in time the Internet2 Studio in Richmond, Va., might draw enough visitors to make it a favorite among the Virginia capital's many attractions. The 2,000-square-foot glass-plated studio is a showcase for advanced networking technologies. The applications housed there, from telemedicine to streaming video, are designed to give the public a glimpse into the future of the state's cybereconomy.

Yet the studio serves as more than a high-glitz, high-tech forum. It is one of the main conduits for keeping Virginia's private and public sectors abreast of Internet2, a series of research and development projects under way at nearly 150 universities nationwide to create a higher performance, more reliable Internet.

"The studio is close to the seat of government so [that] any official from a government agency or a man off the street can come in and get an idea of what's coming," said Patricia Jackson, director of the Internet2 Studio, whose funding is split between Virginia's state government and Virginia Tech, one of the universities participating in the Internet2 project. "The goal of the studio is to bridge the gap between what's happening in universities [and] the mainstream, whether it's the business sector or government."

Other states might want to take note of Virginia's effort because history seems to be repeating itself: The most rigorous work to advance the Internet once again is happening in the higher-education system. State and local governments must leverage ties with the university community to ensure they have the background, and, more importantly, the access to Internet2 technologies and testbeds as they become available commercially over the next few years.

"We want to provide funding and support for [university] groups to continue their [Internet2] research efforts," said Charlie Gerhards, deputy secretary for information technology for Pennsylvania. "We have to let them know how important [those efforts] and e-commerce is to a state like ours, where we have a high rural population."

The growth of e-commerce and an increasingly wired society is fostering a need for improved Internet technologies. With the U.S. online population growing 15 percent annually, increased traffic already has bogged down the current Internet, which is not stable enough to run high-performance, high-bandwidth multimedia or high-resolution video applications. Enter the university system, which in 1996 kicked off the Internet2 initiative to develop and test new technologies and then prove that they could be scaled for mainstream use.

"Because of the pressures of the commercial marketplace, [government and industry] can't afford to take the three-to six-year time horizon needed to develop these new technologies," said Greg Wood, director of communications for Internet2, part of the Washington, D.C.-based University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development, which boasts 50 corporate sponsors including IBM Corp., MCI WorldCom and Cisco Systems Inc., along with university members.

"The commercial sector is focused on increasing capacity and bandwidth with an eye toward three to six months," Wood said. "But we're not about building more of what we have. We're thinking about new ways to transform the ways people connect."

In other words, Internet2 is not merely a project to increase network capacity. Much of it focuses on improving quality of service so that, for example, there are methods for assigning priorities on the network to bandwidth-hungry applications such as telemedicine or videoconferencing over less bandwidth-sensitive tasks such as e-mail.

"Think of it as a multilane highway," said Sheldon Green, state government industry manager in Bell South's business marketing group in Atlanta. Bell South is a corporate sponsor of Internet2. "Users who want guaranteed levels of bandwidth take the toll road" and would likely pay a premium for that service, he said.

Some of the new pieces of technology that would contribute to the higher performance levels include GigaPoPs, which are high-speed regional points at which to access the network; multicasting, a more efficient way to send data to multiple users; and Internet Protocol Version 6, an upgrade to IP that includes myriad network management enhancements.

Interim Solutions

Of course, state and local governments are not waiting for Internet2 before they exploit advanced networking to improve service delivery. Many forward-looking states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maine, are aggressively pursuing upgrades to their networks and launching pilot projects to put key services online.

Pennsylvania, for example, is rebidding the state government's telecommunications network. Instead of investing in a big private network, the state government plans to use its $80 million to $100 million annual networking budget to upgrade the state's public network. "That means advanced services and bandwidth normally not available to businesses and individuals in rural areas will be available now," Gerhards said, adding that a turbocharged public network also can foster economic development in areas otherwise unattractive to business.

Like Pennsylvania, Maine sees advanced networking as a powerful way to make the state more appealing to businesses, not to mention a way to level the "digital divide" between urban areas and rural communities. "Maine's economy has been historically disadvantaged by location," said Gov. Angus King (I). "Having a fast, efficient telecommunications network enables us to compete economically on a basis we couldn't before and erases or minimizes problems of geography."

Eighty thousand miles of fiber-optic cable now connect Maine's 1.2 million citizens, of whom 35 percent were online as of March 1999. Residents can get fishing and hunting licenses online and, in some cases, can pay excise taxes and take Environmental Protection Agency classes on how to handle hazardous materials, according to Bob Mayer, Maine's chief executive officer.

Using the fiber-optic network for education is a pet project of King's. All of Maine's schools are hard-wired to the Internet, so distance learning is one area King says will be well-served by technologies produced by the Internet2 pilots. The state also is interested in pursuing real-time town meetings over the Internet as well as applications in the criminal justice arena, Mayer said.

Virginia's state, local and education agencies have a solid foundation for online services via the state's Asynchronous Transfer Mode network, which delivers speeds up to OC-3 (155 megabits/sec) and stands out for its ability to deliver simultaneous voice, data and video as well as for its usage and distance-insensitive pricing contract.

The network is being tapped by K-12 and higher-education communities for distance-learning projects. The state's Transportation Department also is using the network to exchange computer-aided design drawings on highway projects, and the Corrections Department is tapping it for video arraignments and trials, saving taxpayers the cost of transporting prisoners, according to Internet2 Studio's Jackson.

Virginia's current slate of online services would not be possible without close cooperation between state and local government agencies and the university community. Regular meetings are held between government and university officials on the evolution of "Network Virginia." And universities now manage services for the state government with the network's two contractors: Sprint for the backbone and Bell Atlantic for local exchange services.

This same model of cooperation will hold when Internet2 services become available, Jackson said. "Each side brings strengths to the table," she said. "The universities are [the] first customer. They prove the technology, and once proved, state agencies sign on and negotiate [a request for proposals] on their own to get a better price."

Beth Stackpole is a free-lance writer living in Newbury, Mass., who writes frequently about Internet technology.

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The Funding Stream

The Internet2 project, spearheaded by the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development, isn't the only game in town when it comes to building a better Internet. A complementary effort-dubbed the Next Generation Internet (NGI)-has been under way since 1998, funded by five agencies, including the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Energy Department.

With an annual budget of $100 million over five years, NGI's mission is to pursue research in next-generation Internet technologies such as network management and quality of service. The project aims to connect 100 universities at Internet speeds of more than 100 times what was possible in 1998, according to Kay Howell, director of the National Coordination Office for Computing Information and Communication, which is charged with coordinating federal information on technology research and development.

More than 155 institutions are connected to NGI, and there is an NGI-connected university in every state, many at OC-3- and OC-12-type speeds. Moreover, testbeds are under way in telemedicine, remote diagnostics, government services, emergency management, library services and weather data collection. Close to 40 NGI applications and testbeds have been demonstrated to date, Howell said.

All the work associated with the NGI initiative eventually will make its way to state and local governments as well as filter down to constituents. "Once applications become routine, and the level of bandwidth and networking services becomes routine, then state and local governments can take advantage of them," Howell said. "By making research openly available to the private sector and then to telecommunications providers, it speeds up the process."

- Beth Stackpole

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