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New Net may not get '98 funding

Despite the White House's wishes and academia's needs for a better Net, Congress probably won't allot $100 million to the Next Generation Internet initiative for 1998.

Despite the White House's wishes and academia's needs for a better Net, Congress probably won't allot $100 million to the Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative for 1998, the chair of the House Science Committee said today.

The committee held a hearing on the Clinton administration's initiative to build a faster, smarter Internet over the next three years. The initiative will create new applications and networking technologies to improve communication among the nation's academic and research centers, as well as federal agencies and the health care industry.

NGI technology also promises to route data at 1,000 times the speed of today's Net, setting aside bandwidth so that huge packets of data can be transmitted in real time.

But apparently the plan's points were scattered when the committee considered it earlier this year. Although the administration came through with more information in July, it may have been too late to rope in the requested funding for 1998.

"Regretfully, I believe that much valuable time has been lost," Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), chairman of the committee, said in his opening statement today. "Because of the lack of detail, the committee did not include authorizations for this program. Subsequently, neither the House nor Senate appropriations have approved funding close to the administration's fiscal year '98 request of $100 million for five agencies."

He said there are still misconceptions about what the NGI will do. "As a result of this disarray and the fact that it is unlikely that NGI will receive the requested appropriations for the first year, I would strongly encourage the administration to rethink the details as part of ongoing preparations of the president's fiscal year '99 budget request," Sensenbrenner added.

The government still made a case for approval of the funding. "Our national infrastructure is straining to meet demands for increased communication speeds, service quality, and greater bandwidth to deliver information and services to American citizens and businesses," John Gibbons, assistant to the president for science in technology, testified today during the committee hearing.

"The federal government also has increased demands for high-speed communications and advanced applications that impact agencies' abilities to perform their missions," he added. "Investments are needed now to stimulate progress in advanced communications and to further U.S. scientific and commercial leadership."

NGI developers are working closely with the creators of a separate project funded by universities, called Internet 2. More than 100 colleges across the country will develop new computer network applications to help improve their teaching and research facilities. The universities will invest $50 million a year to connect the schools' students and faculty at speeds 100 times faster than the current network, as well as support advanced applications such as real-time virtual research.

One educator described NGI and Internet 2's potential to improve medical research and the patient treatment in rural areas, for example.

"I envision a day when today's early telemedicine experiments, dependent upon specialized equipment and expensive communication lines, will have evolved so that the Internet becomes the standard vehicle for linking medical experts with other clinicians and patients at a distance," said Dr. Edward Shortliffe, the associate dean for information resources and technology for Stanford University's School of Medicine.

"Clear video images will be transferred, high-fidelity audio links will support listening to the hearts and lungs, and common computing platforms at both ends of the link will at last make this kind of medical practice clearly cost-effective," Shortliffe testified.

The private sector is being asked for technological expertise by contributing to research and development efforts and project funding. (See related story.) But some say the government can't rely heavily on high-tech and telecommunications industries to get the job done.

"There are limits to the role that industry can play. It is difficult for companies to justify to their stockholders the impact the required level of financial support would have on the bottom line," testified Dr. Larry Landweber, a professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who chairs the Internet 2 advisory committee.

"The effort will be difficult, the results are not predictable, and the characteristics and timing of potential products are at present not known," he added. "Because of this uncertainty, it is not reasonable to expect industry to take the lead in developing the technology for the Next Generation Internet."