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Forging a digital world one city at a time

newsmaker Joaquin Alvarado, an indie filmmaker and Internet ambassador, riffs on the future of digital cities.

Joaquin Alvarado might not be the only indie filmmaker-turned-Internet ambassador, but he may be the most ambitious.

Alvarado, 33, is founding director of the Institute for Next Generation Internet at San Francisco State University. The project aims to build commercial applications for high-speed fiber networks, which can be 500 to 600 times faster than standard broadband. He's also founder of the Digital Sister Cities Initiative, a program to connect cities around the world with the goal of promoting economic development through advanced technologies and those high-speed fiber networks.

From his background as a graduate of the UCLA film school, it's not obvious how Alvarado might have come to these roles. But to hear him tell it, his epiphany came while he was a starving indie filmmaker in the early '90s, toting a "lowball, flea-market mentality and high moral standards." Technology and high-speed networks, he thought, were the future means to ensure that alternative filmmakers would be able to produce art and distribute it inexpensively.

Fast-forward to present day and Alvarado is busy proselytizing fiber networks--or the next-generation Internet, as it's called--for business and community advancement. In California, that means using the high-speed fiber network run for educational purposes by CENIC, or the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California. He's also busy rallying digital sister agreements from cities, including Paris, Shanghai and Amsterdam.

(Not to neglect his filmmaking, he also just finished directing "Silent Cross," a documentary about immigration over the Mexico-California border.)

CNET recently caught up with Alvarado to discuss his projects.

Q: Why did you start the Digital Sister Cities project and what does it mean to be a sister city?
Alvarado: Last November, San Francisco State University and the institute I run, the Institute for Next Generation Internet, (had) been working with Mayor Gavin Newsom's office on projects that allow the city, the university and partners to engage on some of the big issues, like globalization and how it's impacting the digital media sector.

Rather than put our heads in the sand, we're trying to figure out ways to engage the global community around collaborating, building productive relationships and sharing some of the values we hope to happen over the next generation.

So we created the Digital Sister Cities Initiative to create bilateral agreements between San Francisco and governments around the world that focus on four things: community-to-community relationships; company-to-company partnerships, especially in the digital media sector; research partnerships, or linking university researchers around the world in co-development of technologies. Fourth is open access to really high-speed networks.

Can you elaborate on the high-speed networks?
Alvarado: On the research side, we've been doing a lot of work with dedicated light paths over fiber to create this new architecture for the Web. And it's based on user-controlled light paths, so we can create dedicated point-to-point wavelengths at 10 gigabits per second between you and me in San Francisco, or out to Paris or to Dublin.

What we're doing is creating a virtual private network that's point-to-point. We want to (promote) this as the next architecture that's going to expand the capacity of our infrastructure; then second, get people using any amount of it.

So we're trying to encourage government and industry to work together by whatever means is appropriate in the local environment, and let companies, community organizations and universities get onto this next-generation Internet.

What progress have you made since you've founded the Digital Sister Cities Initiative?

Alvarado: In the case of Ireland, for example, Dublin is building a Digital Hub around the old Guinness plant that will be this incubation space for research and development and community organizations. Slowly they've grown this indigenous consortium of Irish companies and researchers. This fall, it's opening in stages.

We saw that (the) project is like the Mayor's Digital Media Advisory Council here in San Francisco. And those two things partner really well.

Same thing in Paris. They have what's known as Cap Digital, which is their big digital-media cluster development. They have companies and universities already engaged, so we said let's build a linkage between that and the Mayor's Media Advisory Council, as well as the universities and companies involved. We've done a lot of connecting the dots.

What kinds of applications or projects can we expect from these partnerships?

Alvarado: The real specific project is the Digital Sister Cities lab, which Mike Mages is designing. He was lead on Final Cut Pro at Apple for years.

He's proposed a tool, which we've dubbed Sebastian, which would serve as a next-generation browser environment for media collaboration. It would configure the network for you; it would give you a real-time uncompressed environment to comment and review (video and film clips) on.

Animation and film production houses in San Francisco and other cities have agreed to participate in being the guinea pigs for their workflow around it. And we're just trying to solve the problem of giving people a tool that turns on the next-generation Internet without having NTP be your partner.

Which San Francisco companies have signed on?

Alvarado: Before we did DSC, we worked with Mayor Newsom's office on the Digital Media Advisory Council (DMAC), (a government-industry consortium designed to promote San Francisco as the new "digital Hollywood") with 20 or so representatives from companies including Lucasfilm and Baycat.

(Editor's note: Other DMAC members are from Dolby Laboratories, Fuji Xerox Palo Alto Lab, Wild Brain, Skywalker Sound, CalIT2, LucasArts and ILM.)

We're going to be working with Lucas and their applications team, Wild Brain and several other companies from DMAC. (We'll) bring a box to the company, figure out the networking thing for them so the artists and production team use it and give (us) feedback. We'll do it in such a way that it fosters co-productions with other companies around the world.

In Paris, their two or three biggest digital-effects houses want to participate. They'll take a module of development of it and be guinea pigs. And then we'll want to culminate with a global co-production that's using the tool.

Can we expect commercial projects or art to emerge from this?

Alvarado: The way the Digital Sister Cities lab is designed is to create patentable intellectual property. We want to do it in a way that it's solving a real problem in the next-generation environment, specifically targeted at next-generation Internet and the enabling tools around that.

Hopefully, at some point, someone will grab this tool and say, "I want to integrate that with X product" or "I want to start a four-person company that uses it." It could happen in Paris, Dublin or San Francisco.

When might we see Sebastian be released?

Alvarado: We're on a 12-month production cycle with it. We want to have a good alpha in the spring and a good beta in summer, then (we hope) someone will take it off our hands after that. There will be three or four projects in this pipeline at any one time.

We have this challenge now that we're getting good at engineering around these dedicated light paths, but we're missing a Mosaic--we don't have that interface that allows all kinds of people to take it to scale and drive interaction around the infrastructure. So we're trying to stimulate that.

How would you describe a digital city?

Alvarado: If we dissolve the word digital, it's a city made up of great diversity. It understands that the economy is driven by knowledge work. It has a need to protect openness. It has close working relationships with universities and respects the role of education, and it has a willingness to engage many partners.

An interesting comparison is California and Japan. They've had a weird 10 years or so, but in that time, Japan has been spending billions and billions of dollars on their technology infrastructure. And California has not, other than the research universities and CENIC.

What's the difference between the next-generation Internet and the first Internet?

Alvarado: The best description is synchronous fiber network. The name says what the difference is.

Right now, you can't do anything synchronous between two long-distance points with TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). With these new switches available, this new backbone and this new connectivity allows you to connect in a global environment as opposed to purchasing a direct wire at a real high cost. You can basically target an IP address in two places in the world and they connect together. And they have a wavelength of light that's dedicated--maybe going through all sorts of switch points--but it seamlessly routes with extremely low latency.

How do you commercialize that research-driven backbone (CENIC) while preserving its intended purpose?

Alvarado: This is the $10 trillion question. It's complicated. There are regulatory issues. But if cities want to be competitive, we have to leverage every available resource and build partnerships with providers. In an industry where margin is everything, you need to have every possible advantage, and speeding up the process is one advantage.

We need to bring the price down of fiber. Right now, it costs $15,000 to $20,000 a month for a gig connection because there's no scale in the marketplace.

How is this project funded?

Alvarado: We operate on a combination of grants. But it's not expensive. It's just a few of us, six or eight people on the engineering side, plus consultants from other universities who've worked with light path stuff.

What other projects are coming out of the Digital Sister Cities project?

Alvarado: One is "Brainstormer," a video game about brainstorming. It's kicking off this year at a middle school in East Oakland and a Muslim high school in New Delhi, India, in partnership with the American India Foundation. Students build their own characters in Maya (and brainstorm with each other across continents), and by the end of the year, they'll produce a video game based on the collaboration.

How does San Francisco stack up in terms of what's going on in the rest of the world?

Alvarado: San Francisco is making a noble effort. It's the one city in the world where, in the space of a mile, you can cross the 15 most innovative companies doing their thing, whatever that is. But as a country, we're not concerned enough about how much time, energy and money the rest of the world is spending to beat us at our own game. We have to motivate everyone into the conversation.

Then what are the top three most advanced digital cities?

Alvarado: The ones that I think reflect S.F. in interesting ways are Toronto, Paris and Shanghai. Vancouver's close, but (for) size and scale, I think Toronto's a little more important. It's going to spend more money promoting media than the state of California. Paris--Its digital cluster has a billion and a half euros to develop. There's no budget in the state of California for any of this. We really are depending on our grid, and the fact that we're close to Sand Hill (Road, an influential Silicon Valley address).

Toronto has a new media initiative, a cluster development happening, a waterfront project, a wireless initiative--They have connectivity. I would predict that Canada could become the new California. They've got three or four major cities on board, they're incredibly creative, have great universities, great connectivity and diversity--everything California has, except they have other things like oil. We need not to be afraid, but we need to be motivated.