Qwest wins $50M contract to speed DOE lab network

The Energy Department awarded a $50 million contract to Qwest Communications International Inc. last week to build a telecommunications network capable of transmitting more than 1 trillion bits of data per second.

Qwest Government Systems will upgrade and replace the existing Energy Sciences Network (ESNet) developed by Sprint five years ago. The current system runs at a top speed of 155 megabits/sec and connects federal contractors, universities, research centers and more than four dozen DOE laboratories across the country. ESNet provides transmission speeds almost three times faster than any commercial Internet service provider.

The new network, dubbed ESNet 3, will build upon the Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology already in place and eventually will be phased into an all-optical network.

The system upgrade will increase the amount of information that can be sent, it will speed up connection times to agency databases, and it will allow for real-time videoconferencing. The new system also is expected to increase researchers' ability to collaborate on projects and to run computational experiments.

"This is very exciting for us," said Jim Payne, senior vice president of Qwest Government Systems. "This will give us access to the network of the future. [The Energy Department] has always been way ahead of everyone else."

ESNet grew out of a dial-up system started in 1974 that allowed researchers to access information stored in a supercomputer in California, according to Jon Bashor, a spokesman for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, which runs ESNet for DOE.

"The ESNet now allows more than 2,500 researchers from across the country to have access to data stored in supercomputers at Berkeley," Basher said. "Many times there are researchers who must accesses 20 years worth of information from half-a-dozen locations."

Five years ago Payne played a key role in securing Sprint's contract with DOE to develop and maintain the ESNet system. Payne, formerly Sprint's assistant vice president for FTS 2001, moved to Qwest four months ago. However, he said he did not think that his career move was instrumental in Qwest obtaining the ESNet 3 contract. "It was the company's commitment to the government industry and its ability to address the [request for proposal] that won the contract," he said.

This is the largest government contract Qwest Government Systems has been awarded since it was founded in 1998.

Qwest has already begun work on replacing the machine architecture of the ESNet system and is upgrading the network bandwidth from OC-3 (155 megabits/sec) to OC-12 (622 megabits/sec). The company aims to increase the network data transmission capabilities to 1 trillion bits of data per second by 2004.

To achieve this speed, Qwest and its partners, Lucent Technologies and Cisco Systems Inc., will have to figure out a way to decrease the steps necessary to break up files into packets for transmission and how to move data more expediently across fiber-optic lines.

"This is the type of customer we can grow with," said Wesley Kaplow, senior director of technology for Qwest Government Systems. "This is the most successful network of its type, and what we accomplish here could set the standard for the industry."

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