Tech giants hold high hopes for Internet2

Some worried that the economic downturn meant trouble for Internet2, a haven for cutting-edge technology, but the project is getting a power boost.

3 min read
If Pinchas Zuckerman, the music director at the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa, hears a not-so-perfect note from his violin student Wu Jie, Zuckerman can demonstrate a better way to hold the bow even though Wu is watching from New York City.

Wu, of the Manhattan School of Music, said that because of a two TV set-up she can watch herself on one screen and Zuckerman on the other with little delay and great sound quality, courtesy of a fast link-up to the Internet2 network.

Internet2 started in 1996 as a group of corporations, universities and nonprofits interested in advanced research. The project acts as a laboratory for companies and researchers developing new technologies and also serves as a blueprint of what the Internet could look like in the future.

Most people associate video streaming over the Internet with chunky sound and halted pictures, for example, but the technology has made great strides within Internet2 to broadcast quality.

"You are hearing the real sound and seeing the real image. You're not looking at some grainy image on a computer screen," said Professor Brian Shepard, the coordinator of the music technology program at the University of Oklahoma School of Music.

Participants of Internet2 include Qwest Communications, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Intel and Lucent Technologies, all of which have fallen on hard times with the economic downturn, making some wonder if Internet2 might not be at risk. But instead, the project is getting a power boost.

Internet2 announced this week that Qwest will extend its role as the keeper of the project for another five years and upgrade the backbone speed by four times to 10 gigabits per second by October 2003, roughly more than 155,000 times faster than a standard dial-up modem connection.

"Overall, if you look at how people are voting with their feet and their checkbooks, (Internet2) has been a success," said Ken Klingenstein, the director of the Internet2 project's middleware group.

Internet2 is powered by "Abilene," a telecommunications network run by Qwest, which links companies and universities around the country and their northern counterparts through Canarie, the Canadian version of Internet2. Abilene is put together with "off the shelf" equipment available in the telecommunications market, but it works more smoothly than the regular Internet, according to Internet2 spokesman Greg Wood, because relatively fewer people use the network and because it receives the constant attention of top researchers, which creates a fertile environment to test future applications.

"You wouldn't want to say it's frictionless, but we are skating on ice," Wood said.

Companies belong to Internet2 for different reasons, but Jill Arnold, the director of corporate relations at Internet2, says that the need to have a stake in innovation is a common motivator. "They're all here because they want to be part of a leading-edge activity," she said.

Through Internet2, tech companies have access to top research universities and researchers. They hope to translate these efforts into economic gain by helping develop better applications for the mass market.

"Originally, the thought was that this would be a small group of universities and a small group of companies working together," Arnold said.

In 1997, 10 universities, 11 corporations and six affiliate groups that are either educational or nonprofit institutions were involved. As of last summer, those numbers ballooned to 73 corporate, 185 university and 39 affiliates.

Wu's experience hints that the revolution may be televised after all, at least when it comes to education.

Ted Hanns, the director of application development at Internet2, says the network can allow speeds between 10mbps (megabits per second) and 15mbps for videoconferences, which is about 178 times faster than a dial-up modem, compared with regular broadband connections rates of 1.5mbps.

"Students are involved in their lesson, and they can see themselves involved in their lesson," said Christianne Orto, the director of recording and videoconferencing at the Manhattan School of Music.