A kind of electronic arteriosclerosis has increasingly been dragging internet transmissions down to a crawl. But in mid-April, scientists, corporate executives, and government leaders came together in Washington, D.C., to announce they’ve found a cure. It’s called Internet2.

Educators and others who not so long ago got goose bumps the first time they linked into a web site half way ’round the world have felt the rush become an ooze. As speed limits on the “information superhighway” came down to the molasses level, frustration quickened. School technology champions who easily could envision wondrous educational uses for the world wide web–projects often involving multimedia–have sometimes been frustrated to discover such uses are just a little out of reach.

It’s not that the desired projects are technically unfeasible. It’s just that the current internet infrastructure isn’t entirely up to speed. The problem is itself a measure of technology’s pervasive hold.

The current internet–now being referred to among Internet2 aficionados as the “global internet”–is no longer capable of doing what educators and others want it to.

“We’ve seen instruction in multimedia applications and what that can do to enhance student learning,” said Bill Graves, chairman of the Internet2 Applications Task Force. “But the moment we try to put that up on the network, the network is simply not up to it.”

On April 14, Vice President Al Gore announced the federal government is investing $50 million in research projects aimed at creating a next-generation internet that will lead to speedier network applications–first for universities and then for K-12 schools.

As part of the Internet2 project, Gore unveiled a lightning-fast network backbone connecting universities across the country. The backbone, called Abilene, is the work of the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID). It uses the Qwest national fiber optic network and technologies developed by such companies as Cisco, Nortel, and IBM.

Internet2 is the work of universities supported with $500 million in private investments. It eventually will fold into the current “global internet.”

The Internet2 project, started in 1996 with funds from corporations such as 3Com and MCI Communications, includes more than 100 universities. Recently, IBM committed more than $3.5 million in support for Internet2.

Right now only university researchers are using the speedier network. Most elementary and secondary will never really use Internet2 directly, but K-12 educators will be able to start using Internet2-like services in two to three years, experts say. (A few K-12 schools and libraries might be able to start sooner on a trial basis.)

Although it’s still a couple of years away, the super-fast network will change the way K-12 schools use the internet in classrooms. In addition to speedier downloads and web surfing, Internet2 will reduce the kind of networking frustration that can often prevent teachers from fully incorporating the internet into their curriculum, said Greg Marks, associate director of Merit Network, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization that provides connectivity to educational institutions, libraries, governments, and businesses. It is one of the affiliate members of Internet2.

Network arteriosclerosis

“The internet doesn’t support the kind of applications universities want to do, which is what everyone will want to do in a few years,” said Greg Wood, communications director for Internet2/UCAID.

Accessing and working with massive databases such as NASA’s images of Mars, for example, would require moving billions of bits of data per second. An activity like this would take hours or even days today–and that’s if there were no other demands on the network.

Three basic problems plague today’s internet: First, it wasn’t designed for heavy work such as simultaneous sound and video transmissions. Second, the system doesn’t prioritize tasks. It’s inefficient. Third, today’s global internet is becoming clogged and glutted by the sheer volume of its users.

These shortcomings lead to high teacher frustration, said the Merit Network’s Marks. “Today I could put up something on RealVideo–it would stutter and stop for a few minutes or we would lose the connection entirely. ”

Next generation internet

Internet2 is designed to solve the problem of “network arteriosclerosis” in new ways. First, Internet2 will allow users to work at higher speeds. Downloading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, will take just seconds.

With increased bandwidth, activities such as simultaneous, reliable transmissions of pictures and sounds will become possible. TV-quality audio and video “streaming” require more bandwidth than the global internet can provide now.

But with Internet2, the kind of live, real-time collaboration that’s instrumental for activities such as remote teacher training finally can happen, said Marks. Faster, more-reliable networking will reduce the frustrations teachers have today with today’s clumsy “video conferencing.”

Further, the network will be designed to work more efficiently, handling data in smarter, more effective ways.

One way Internet2 will be different: It will be able to prioritize tasks, Wood said. The existing internet now assigns tasks on a “first come, first served” basis. A task is any request you make of the internet–sending a piece of eMail, for example, or downloading a file.

Because all tasks are treated the same, activities that require more bandwidth– video conferencing, for example–run poorly.

With Internet2, a video conferencing session would get a higher bandwidth priority than, say, a request for a web page. The higher priority would enable the video conferencing session to work properly.

Here are some of the other high-bandwidth applications being developed for Internet2:

  • Distributed, on-demand education. That means students (and teachers) can engage in collaborative learning through multimedia courseware (desktop-to-desktop video conferencing) that’s stored and used over the internet;
  • Collaborative research, which allows researchers worldwide to share large amounts of data with predictable responsiveness without interruptions or slow-downs;
  • Digital libraries, large archives of multimedia files that can be accessed and transferred quickly and with high quality;
  • “Tele-immersion,” which significantly changes what’s possible with distance learning by allowing individuals at different locations to interact in a single virtual environment and to communicate and relate to one another in real time.
  • Yet another network-building project, also supported by Qwest, was announced last week. The Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California’s CalREN-2, as the network is called, will become active in June to link more than a dozen private and public universities, including the University of California, Stanford, and the California Institute of Technology.

    Trickle-down technology

    The Internet2 project is closely related to President Clinton’s Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative. The NGI is federally funded, and different applications are being developed.

    All these network projects will develop new technologies that will trickle down to the global internet. Also sure to benefit from the technological advances will be the private networks–local area networks and wide-area networks–connecting computers in your schools.

    Merit Network
    http://www.merit.edu

    Internet2
    http://www.internet2.edu

    UCAID
    http://www.ucaid.edu/

    Cisco Systems
    http://www.cisco.com

    Qwest
    http://www.qwest.net

    Nortel
    http://www.nortel.com

    IBM
    http://www.ibm.com

    Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California
    http://www.cenic.org/calren2.html

    3COM
    http://www.3com.com

    MCI Communications
    http://www.mci.com

    Next Generation Internet
    http://www.ngi.gov

    Preparing for Internet2

    To prepare schools now for the new high-speed networking to come, Merit offers the following suggestions:

  • Schools and libraries that are installing new wiring should install the highest quality wiring they can afford. Merit suggests category 5 wiring done by a competent firm. You might only be using the wire at 10 Mbps now, but with Internet2 you’ll want to be able to support speeds in excess of 1,000 Mbps.
  • Install wiring that meets EIA/TIA 568 specifications.
  • Get written test results of any cable installation–that way you can go back to the installer if there’s any trouble.
  • Install conduits or cable trays in such a way that putting in new wiring or replacing old wiring is easy.
  • Don’t use older thick (10Base5) or thin (10Base2) ethernet for new installations. Instead, use TPE (twisted pair ethernet, 10BaseT).
  • Use switched rather than shared ethernet hubs.
  • Install as much fiber between buildings as you can afford; install a mix of single and multi-mode fiber.
  • Buy equipment that can be managed using Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP).