TCS Daily

New Improved Internet

By Edward B. Driscoll - October 8, 2002 12:00 AM

The need for employees and entrepreneurs to telecommute from home has clearly grown in importance since the terrible events of September 11th, 2001. However, the type of work that can be done via telecommuting is being hampered by a bottleneck of the current maximum speed of today's connections to the Internet. For most users of the Internet, bandwidth has reached a temporary speed limit of somewhere between 56 kilobits a second, the maximum that dial-up modems can perform, and a few megabits per second, the speed of most 'high-speed' broadband cable modem, DSL, and satellite connections.

HDTV videoconferencing via the Internet is one but one example of a tool that many businesses and entrepreneurs would welcome to reduce the amount of flying necessary to conduct business face to face. But the sender and receiver would each require bandwidth of at least 270 mbps, and preferably a lot more. For anyone who's downloaded and watched video over the Internet, it's clear that for a variety of reasons, the current Internet, wonderful for transmitting text, pretty good for transmitting audio and still images, just doesn't cut it when it comes to transmitting decent quality video. Those limitations that hamper video also slow a number of other applications.

The New Improved Internet

Fortunately, help may be on the way. If the folks at Internet2 have their way, the current Internet will gradually be replaced by components they've developed and tested-a computer network that's faster, sleeker, stronger, able to leap over tall HDTV broadcasts in a single bandwidth.

Internet2 is a research and development consortium of over 190 universities, about 70 companies, and 40 other organizations that are using high-performance networks to test new technologies and deploy new applications.

The backbone network of Internet2 is called the Abilene network, named after a railhead established in Abilene, Kansas during the 1860s. In March of 2001, the consortium announced that the education data networks in several states would be permitted to connect to Abilene under a new policy that allows expanded access by non-Internet2 member schools. As of August of 2002, Internet2's 190 member universities were joined by literally thousands of additional schools. 24 states have connected, or are approved to connect their entire statewide educational networks to Internet2's Abilene network.

"Just as we now all use the Web and email, which were developed by and for the academic community", Greg Wood, Internet2's Director of Communications says, "we expect that three to five years from now, we'll be using new kinds of capabilities that were tested and deployed in the Internet2 environment."

HDTV on the Web

Such as? Well, in 1999, the University of Washington, working with Stanford University, Sony and a few other companies, tested HDTV streaming video over Internet2. HDTV-quality Internet video is a colossal jump in quality over the poor quality of today's streaming video, even when it's viewed on the highest of high-speed Internet connections. And the ability to transmit HDTV is an objective goal for any next generation Internet protocol.

Internet2 in the Home

If and when technologies developed by Internet2 start impacting broadband, the need for homes to have some sort of hard-wired LAN becomes increasingly important. It's becoming more and more likely that the interactive TV of the future will involve some sort of high-speed Internet connection, moving at speeds faster than current wireless, phone line or power line-based LANs.

The typical home in the next five to ten years may well have an Internet2 feed which will be accessible both on the set-top boxes of high-definition (and NTSC) TVs, as well as by personal computers. Both HDTV-quality video-on-demand, as well conventional email and Web sites will come through that Internet2 connection.

Adding video to the Internet has challenges beyond 'merely' upgrading its hardware. It radically complicates most search engines, which were heretofore designed to scour and catalog text. Wood says, "If you're looking for a video of say, 'smoke', you might want to find clips of video where smoke is mentioned. You might want to find the video where there are pictures of smoke. Or if there's an organization that has the word 'smoke' in its name. The accessing, searching and retrieving video is just as big a challenge as simply delivering high-performance video over the network."

Other Technologies On Internet2

Many of the other applications designed around the Internet2's considerable bandwidth also involve HDTV. Examining them helps to illustrate the potential of Internet2: these are tasks that are way beyond the capabilities of current Internet technology.

These applications include Internet-based interactive TV, video conferencing, video education, searchable HDTV video archives and even 'tele-immersion' rooms with wall-size video screens. Beyond HDTV-oriented applications, Internet2 is currently testing applications such as remote access to equipment as diverse as telescopes and electron microscopes, and remote access to very high quality images from art galleries and libraries.

Another project that contemplates a very high speed Internet is the National Digital Mammography Archive. Debbie Montano, Director of Advanced Internet Initiatives for Qwest Communications, the project's sponsor, says it's "definitely an ambitious project. It's looking at what if every breast cancer screening was digitized and available, so that when you go to get another screening or another test, that data is available and can be transferred over a high-speed network."

The opening up of the Internet2 network provides for testing of these applications in an environment that's similar in scale to today's vast commercial Internet. Douglas Van Houweling, the President and CEO of Internet2 says, "We have more than a million students, faculty, and staff able to access the capabilities of Internet2. That provides a large enough scale environment, so that you really can discover most of the tough issues you're going to run into when you go out into the open public Internet world."

A Seamless Transition

And that testing is extremely important, before these technologies can begin to be rolled out to residences. Wood says that one concern is that "your email could wait a few minutes and it wouldn't hurt you very much. However, if you're trying to get HDTV over that same pipe, there needs to be a way to make sure that that HDTV signal has a reliable connection. And right now of course, with the current Internet technology that's not possible."

Despite the challenges involved, Wood sees the transition from the current Internet to Internet2 as being relatively seamless. "You're not going to sign up for a brand new thing called Internet2." However, the average computer user will slowly start to notice the services from their current ISP becoming more capable and sophisticated.

To Infinity and Beyond, by Way of The Great White North

If Internet2's promised speed of ten gigabits per second doesn't sound fast enough, even faster Internet speeds are being tested by Canada's equivalent high-speed research program, the similarly non-profit Canarie Inc.

Bill St. Arnaud, Canarie's senior director of advanced networks says, unlike today's managed networks (such as Internet2 or CA*Net 3, which Canarie runs on), ideally, users will own and control their networks. "Researchers or universities will purchase and own wavelengths as an asset."

These 'wavelengths' will be in the form of 'dark fiber'-otherwise unused fiber optic cable. "But a university can't afford to buy dark fiber across the United States, or across Canada." St. Arnaud says. Instead, Canarie will buy space on fiber optic networks being installed by commercial telecommunications carriers, and then "turn these wavelengths over to the universities. They then own the wavelength for 20 years, and they can cross-connect that wavelength to whomever, and whenever they wish."

The cross-connecting that St. Arnaud refers to is what allows for a truly radical increase in speed. Each fiber optic wavelength would be 2.5 gigabits a second, Similar in speed to Internet2's current 2.4 gigabit a second backbone network. An institution may own several wavelengths, and may even be able to lease additional wavelengths for specific projects. So combined, several 2.5 gigabit networks could become one super-network running at speeds of five to even "20 or 100 gigabits," St. Arnaud says. "We hope this will develop new applications and services by changing networking from a service to an asset."

One application of this dramatically increased bandwidth could very well be what Michael Turzanski calls remote access to distributed computing power. Turzanski, the deputy director of the Advanced Internet Initiatives Group at Cisco Systems, Inc. describes this as being similar to a power grid. "The people who are playing with it now are high-energy physicists who want to do some simulations," he says. St. Arnaud says that those physicists would like to send files as large as a pedabyte (a thousand terabytes or a million gigabytes). Try waiting around for a file that big to arrive on today's cable modems.

Turzanski says this added bandwidth could also lead to other applications, particularly in the business world. For example, national or global businesses, whose computers sit idle when their stores or offices in earlier time zones close, can tap into those computers and combine their processing power.

St. Arnaud describes Canarie's vision as being "a whole new way of looking at networking. We think we're on the cusp of a revolution, similar to what happened to mainframe computers when the first minicomputer was introduced in the early '70s. And we think we'll try and do the same thing with networks."

While it may be some time before we see the results, behind the scenes, between America's Internet2 and Canada's Canarie, the Can-Am speed wars are definitely going into overdrive.



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