Government support is an unreliable gauge of whether a technology really will catch on. In our disputatious society, a better measure might be controversy. And if contentiousness is the key, then internet content filters must be teetering on the brink of unbridled popularity, as our front page story on the patent controversy surrounding content filters plainly shows.

Contrast the sturm and drang booming over internet content filters with the eerie silence enveloping the v-chip. That little governor, already being insinuated into the nation’s TV sets, has been available to consumers since 1997, but so far it’s seemed rooted to the shelf. (Citizens just insist on clinging to their legacy technology–more commonly known as the on/off switch.)

Government backing hasn’t done much for the v-chip, but perhaps federal support for the Next Generation Internet (NGI) can save it–maybe even rendering moot the content-filter controversy.

That whimsical possibility arises from the most striking difference between the good, old-fashioned internet–now known by aficionados as the “commodity internet”–and what’s coming soon to a monitor near you: Video.

Major corporate players such as FVC.com (see page 36), Lucent, WorldCom, and Cisco are teaming up as fast as they can with universities and government agencies to deliver the advanced internet and its full-motion, theater-quality video.

The advanced internet is here and now, but people probably won’t fully appreciate that until somebody sorts out the confusion over its various labels–Internet2, NGI, and Abilene.

For starters, Internet2 is a collaborative effort in higher education, not a single, separate network. Internet2 joins the network applications and engineering efforts of its members together with numerous advanced campus, regional, and national networks.

Next comes NGI. This federal initiative is focused on developing the technological infrastructure needed by federal agencies. So NGI is not precisely a network either, at least not in the technological sense.

And then there’s “Abilene.” Now, there’s a network!

Abilene represents a practical application of what initiatives such as Internet2 and NGI are striving for. Abilene debuted just two months ago, built at a cost reported to be $500 million. It is a super-fast network currently spanning some 10,000 miles and linking nearly 40 universities. It’s expected to link more than 60 universities by the end of this year. More than 45 of America’s leading technology corporations are involved in its development.

Abilene allows for the transfer of 2.4 billion bits of data per second. Depending on your sources, that’s either 45,000 or 85,000 times faster than the transfer rate achieved by a 56K modem. Or, to put it another way, Abilene is 1,600 times faster than a T-1 line.

“It’s the difference,” one expert explained, “between watching a motion picture and flipping through the pages of a book.” The entire contents of an encyclopedia, it is reported, can be downloaded in seconds.

“In three years,” says Douglas Van Houweling, an Internet2 leader, “people will be routinely watching TV on the internet.” On a moment’s notice, people anywhere on earth will hold virtual meetings via the advanced internet.

This new internet eventually will play a part in nearly all segments of society. It will aid in the design of cars and trucks through remote three-dimensional modeling. It will connect supercomputers to improve hurricane and tornado forecasting. It will help distant research labs collaborate in analyzing the distribution of groundwater contaminants and improve medical procedures. And, of course, schools will use the advanced internet for distance learning and computer simulations for science and math instruction.

Advanced computer networks like Abilene will accelerate learning on all fronts–from virtual laboratories, to remote science sampling, to digital libraries.

Barely a generation after the creation of that old, decrepit “commodity internet,” the next big thing already is coming into view–provided a v-chip doesn’t block it.