Turning Internet2 into reality

Douglas E. Van Houweling heads the private-public sector partnership charged with creating a faster electronic network than the one offered by the Internet. His modus operandi: Let your imagination fly.

9 min read
The future of the Internet is rigorously being worked out through a private-public sector partnership called Internet2.

Internet2 began in 1996 as a result of interest from corporations, universities and nonprofits in doing advanced research on a faster electronic network than the one offered by the Internet. 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.

Internet2 researchers helped iron out applications like e-mail, chat messaging and streaming audio, and are now working on advanced video and privacy technology.

The organization also has some heavy hitters from both the corporate and academic worlds including IBM, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Intel and Qwest Communications International.

Qwest also runs Abilene, the high-speed optical network that connects member universities and organizations, and recently announced that they would renew their commitment and upgrade the network over the next five years.

Douglas E. Van Houweling is the president and CEO of the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID), the formal organization supporting Internet2. He started his career as an assistant professor of government at Cornell University in 1970, but steadily migrated toward information technology and now serves on the faculty at the University of Michigan as a professor in the School of Information.

CNET talked with him soon after Internet2 held its first virtual member meeting in early October, an online gathering that connected various member sites with video and audio conferencing technology and allowed participants to view the proceedings and presentations without actually attending in person.

Somebody needs to build the ball park, and we think of ourselves in that respect. The innovators and the standards organizations are the people
that actually set the rules. Q: I saw a little bit of the Internet2 conference a few weeks ago and thought it was pretty interesting as far as the streaming aspect. How did it go from your end?
A: We thought it was quite a success in two ways. The first is that an awful lot of people from a lot of places around the world participated. The fact that it was as easy for people from Argentina to participate as it was for people from California meant that we had more of a planetwide audience. The other way in which it was a success from our point of view is that we learned a lot. We were really pushing the frontier and decided to do that even though we knew that there were certain aspects of it that would almost certainly not work. Internet2 exists primarily to learn about the future of the Internet and to understand how to implement that future, and the best way to do that is go out there and push pretty hard.

Was this the video technology of the conference that didn't necessarily work?
A: Actually, it's interesting...the largest issues almost always seem to have to do with audio. We all can tolerate glitchy video without losing much in the way of information content, but when we lose the audio it's a real issue. For instance, just to give you one small example, we implemented for a number of the sessions compressed video linking a lot of sites together and found it was very difficult to get the discipline in place so that all of the sites that were participating had their microphones muted, so we wound up getting a lot of spurious audio. But in the long run, if this stuff is going to work, we have to figure out how to deal with that. These are precisely the sort of seemingly mundane issues that are required to really take the next step.

Internet2 is about a big backbone network called Abilene, some large corporate backers, some very large research university backers and certainly a lot of investment that's being thrown into it. Can you explain why an everyday Internet user should care what's going on with Internet2 right now?
My dad, just to pick one example, would be absolutely delighted if he could have an online videoconference with his grandchildren. He exchanges e-mail with them all the time, but he doesn't get a chance to see them, and little kids change a lot even from month to month. Our families these days get spread all over the world and yet we love to get together and see one another. The very same technology that we experimented with in the virtual Internet2 member meeting and largely succeeded with is the same technology that a few years from now will let families get together in virtual meetings. Those kinds of new uses of the network--real-time interaction with people wherever they are for whatever purpose, whether it's family get-togethers or getting important business done--I think that's very important. Unless we have a place like Internet2 where we can all focus on a level playing field environment that allows us to really try these new technologies and see what's required to scale them up, we won't get there. So I think that's why everybody should care about Internet2 and how it's going to enable a future Internet that allows us to do more than we can with today's Internet.

What do you think the commercial Internet will look like five years from now or ten years from now? What kinds of services will be available to the everyday Internet user?
It's awfully hard to predict the Internet. Five years ago it would have been hard to predict where we are today. More and more people will use the Internet not just to surf the Web and send e-mail but they'll also use it to do their phone calls and do that with video where it's appropriate. We'll do more and more of our business on the Internet and I think we'll have new tools which will make that far more convenient and also do a better job of protecting our privacy. We'll use the Internet to gain access to a broad range of media. We've already successfully transmitted high-definition television programs over Internet2. I don't know how long it's going to take for us to be able to do those same kinds of things in the commercial Internet environment, but I think it will happen. So, a richer, more convenient and, I believe, fundamentally safer Internet are the things that I expect are going to be the keys as we think about the future.

You were saying that when you have a technology that's experimental, you need to push it hard. Does that mean push it hard from an experimental level or from a marketing level in trying to get more research institutions to play with it?
You put your finger on a very important issue. (There's a difference between) a demonstration of a new technology (and having) that same technology in use by hundreds of thousands--even millions--of people; (it) is just enormous. That's a lot of what the virtual Internet2 member meeting was about. Taking a lot of technologies that we have successfully demonstrated and actually trying to put them in broad use. As you do that in a higher-education community, as you get hundreds of thousands of people using a new capability (or) a new application, then the rest of the Internet sort of wakes up and says "Oh, my goodness, this is real, this is something we could sell," and as a result the very example of a scaled-up technology winds up being the most effective tool for marketing it.

Internet2 represents a real opportunity for a number of corporations in this time of economic distress. By making a pretty modest investment in
Internet2, you can really cover a very broad waterfront. As more information goes online, as people communicate more on the Web through video and sound technologies, what are the privacy issues that come up? Do you see any issues that might arise that we are not even thinking about right now? Today, it's about making your financial transactions safe and protecting your personal information. Are those fundamental privacy issues always going to be with us, or will there be new ones?
A lot of those questions will stay with us and there will be new ones. The old model was that if you were going to engage in business or some type of transaction with...an organization, you basically had to give them a pretty complete set of information about yourself. I personally have probably 40 or 50 accounts open with various companies around the world that I've done business with and they all have a fair amount of information about me. In fact, they don't need all that information in order to do business with me. We've been working on a privacy model which would allow an individual to deposit their information in one place or maybe just a couple of places...In order to do an transaction, like, say, buy a book from Amazon, (we would) just transmit to Amazon the information that Amazon would need to execute that transaction. If we separately want to engage in an Amazon service to tell us about books we might be interested in, give them the information they need to do that, but not in a way that means everybody has all of this information, but...contain it and manage it in a way that's more proactive on the part of the consumer. It's rethinking these issues of how much information needs to be shared, when does it need to be shared, how should it be retained, and so on. These are fundamental issues that are going to become more important as we live more of our lives in an online environment.

So one solution would be to have the equivalent of a clearinghouse where you deposit your personal information and authorize companies to only get certain kinds of information to complete transactions?
Right. And I just want to be clear: This is not our imagination speaking. We are now in the process of building the clearinghouse and the directory system that would allow us to do that as a capability for higher education so that our students, faculty and staff can use resources and enroll in courses at each other's institutions. We expect over the next couple of years that we're going to figure out how this works, what parts of it work well, what parts of it need to be modified, and we're doing this together with private companies. In particular, a couple of companies that are closely involved in this are IBM and Sun (Microsystems), but there are a number of companies that we are working with in consortia.

You said Internet2 must be a level playing-field environment. Is that level playing field more between the companies involved or with research institutions?
The commercial Internet is a place where there are literally tens of thousands of organizations that compete with one another and cooperate with one another to provide services. The nice thing about the Internet2 community is we do have hundreds of organizations that provide the connections that support Internet2, but we've all joined together in a cooperative community so that we can jointly decide to undertake certain experiments (and) implement certain protocols and see how they work. That's not something you can do in the commercial Internet space.

So it sounds like somebody has to be the referee, and if so, who would that be?
I don't know if I would exactly say somebody has to be the referee. What I would say is that somebody needs to build the ballpark, and we think of ourselves in that respect. The innovators and the standards organizations are the people that actually set the rules.

So it's not just one ballpark, it's more of a league of several ballparks?
Yes. The one thing that you have to be very careful of when you're trying to lead change in the Internet environment is that you reach out and you're inclusive because the Internet is a bottoms-up kind of environment. Nobody exercises control over the Internet. What you do is try to allow people to propagate good ideas and try out innovations and see whether or not they really work.

With the economy where it is now, have you noticed any effects on Internet2 and its progress?
Our corporate members are more focused than ever on the need to maximize their short-term economic well-being. As a result, we have had more than usual change in our membership. That is, more organizations have dropped off. I expect we may actually have some net decline in membership; it's a little hard to say right now. The other thing that has become clear is that Internet2 represents a real opportunity for a number of corporations in this time of economic distress. By making a pretty modest investment in Internet2, you can really cover a very broad waterfront, see a lot of what's going on and have a pretty cost-effective way to participate in activities, which help build the future.

So there might be some decline in membership, but overall participation is still very active?
Yes, and in some ways I have to say that we have more activity in the actual use of these new capabilities than I think we've ever had, and I think that's partly because corporations now recognize that investments in collaboration technology are very important in today's environment.