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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions

[April 4, 2001]

Lighting The Dark Fibers For The Internet2

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?

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 you 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 NSF's facilities.

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 networks.

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 tschelmetic@tmcnet.com. Please don't send her photos of your baby's first birthday party.

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