Lighting The Dark Fibers For The
If you've ever gritted your teeth waiting for a download, or been a
participant in a VoIP call that sounded as if the person you are speaking
with was located somewhere past the third moon of Jupiter, you understand
the frustration of having more application than bandwidth. It's a problem
with which we are probably all familiar. So can you imagine the scenario
of having more bandwidth than application? Sounds similar to listening to
a supermodel complain she's too beautiful, wealthy and popular, doesn't
It is, however, precisely the problem the consortium to develop Internet2,
the next-gen, ultra high-speed Internet, is currently having. As often
happens when you build it bigger, smarter and faster, capacity at first
exceeds practical use. (Recall Bill Gates' famous and oft-quoted 1981
statement, "640k ought to be good enough for anybody.") As a
basis for comparison, the fastest you'll see on the Internet today is
several hundred megabits per second. The ultimate goal of the Internet2
project is to see gigabits per second. Sowhen you want to test the
potential of such a system and transmitting a paltry MP3 file or short
video clip is akin to trying to track a gerbil in Times Square, what do
Let's talk about what this next-gen Frankenstein is, first. The
Internet as it exists now is comprised of a number of
"backbones"themselves comprised of thousands of miles of
fiber optic cables that crisscross a country like fine mesh. The debut of
Internet2 will likely come from the cooperation of two ultra-high speed
backbones, both still in their developmental tweaking stages. The first
belongs to the world of research and academia and is called the vBNS (Very
high-speed Backbone Network Service). The vBNS was developed by MCI
WorldCom in response to a request by the National Science Foundation,
or NSF (the group responsible for the Internet we currently know and love,
from its humble roots in the 1960s to the present). The super-fast vBNS is
currently used to network U.S. research facilities and universities to the
The second ultra high-speed creation making headlines is the backbone
developed by the University Corporation for Advanced Internet
Development's Internet2 project. This backbone is called
"Abilene" and was created with fibers owned by Qwest.
The two networks are only loosely (and somewhat competitively) linked at
the moment, but many expect that to change.
At press time, the Internet2 consortium claims membership by 180
universities and research facilities (some in association with the NSF's
vBNS, some in association with Abilene, and some with both.) Participation
in the Internet2 project is open to any university with on-campus
facilities dedicated to advanced applications development.
Politics and posturing aside, what are they planning on doing with all
that bandwidth? If rumors and reports are correct, even the fiber optics
for today's Internet are underused. The big players reportedly have laid
so much of the stuff, huge percentages of it lie "dark," waiting
for users, bandwidth and applications. (Won't that be an irritating
thought next time you're sloooowwwwwly trying to download your college
roommate's baby's first birthday pictures?)
Back to the applicationslet's go on a hunt for the biggest bandwidth
hogs we can possibly hypothesize.
How about the pet project for the weird dude (and I mean that in a good
way) who is considered the father of virtual reality? Jaron Lanier
recently spoke to Scientific
American about his vision of tele-immersion, or a
three-dimensional version of videoconferencing. He noted some of the limitations
inherent in teleconferencing (flat images, the inability to make eye
contact, the image shown from a single point of viewthe camera's). And
he has advanced the idea of incorporating virtual reality in
teleconferencing, allowing two participants to almost literally look at
one another, judge each other's body language and visually sense the
entirety of the other room and its occupant from a multitude of vantage
points (not just that of a camera), much like when standing face-to-face
with another person. Participants in a tele-immersion session can
"explore" a space together or study a 3-D object at the same
time. The goal is also to entirely overcome the latency, or delay, that
can spoil a long-distance teleconferencing session and lead to that
aforementioned sensation of communicating with someone on Jupiter. It's a
concept that obviously would make even your cable modem run away in horror
and cower (presuming it had legs, of course.) Bring on the next Internet.
Telemedicine, which I've explored in a previous
column, is eventually expected to approach the point where a remote
surgeon can operate on a patient thousands of miles away via a robot and
an Internet connection. The futurists of telemedicine have even discussed
advanced, remote diagnostic capabilities in which a robot can scan a
patient's tumor, for example, and a remote physician can use a
"sensory box" or some type of yet-to-be-invented equipment that
will allow him or her to palpate the tumor from a thousand miles away.
This is another application that's not going to happen on current
Advanced, high-resolution broadcast technologies are beginning to
converge in what is known as HDTV (high-definition television), or TV with
a picture approximately five times as dense as that of a standard
television. Since even today, the different facets of the entertainment
industry are beginning to coalesce into one large multimedia and very
digital experience, it is guestimated that in the future, the
old-fashioned means of television transmission will cease to exist and
will become part of the ultimate conglomerate that will be digital
entertainmenta mix of video, audio and data.
A challenge still exists and will continue to exist in what developers
refer to "the last mile"the stretch between your ISP and your
home. Most Internet users still use dial-up modems to access the Internet.
Where is the practicality in a route to Mars being made available to the
average citizen when he or she is driving a Yugo instead of a rocket ship?
In my head, though, this is not much of an issue. In the next few years,
more and more Internet users will make the jump to faster, wider
connections, and once they get a taste for the abilities of such a
connection, the hunger for bandwidth at home will only continue to expand.
Once we all get a taste of what the Internet2 might be able to offer, we
might never be in Kansas anymoreever.
The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please don't send her photos of your baby's first birthday party.