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Think the Internet's fast? Abilene has it eating dust

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Updated: 6/09/2004 9:57 am
By Brian Kladko
The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)
(KRT)

You have just hooked your computer up to cable or DSL. Web pages, software, and music suddenly zip into your PC so quickly, you wonder how you ever lived without it. You have entered the Internet's fast lane.

But there is another information highway out there. And sorry to break it to you, this one's even faster. And it's off-limits to most of us.

The network's formal name is Abilene, but it's informally known as Internet2, because that's what it is - a second-generation Internet that transmits far more information, far faster, than most people could ever need.

Well, maybe they will need it someday. But let's put that aside for now.

To demonstrate the network's speed, a group of researchers set a record in February for transmitting data between remote locations. Over 10 minutes, they sent half a terabyte of data - the equivalent of 150 full-length DVDs - from Los Angeles to Geneva.

The network is at least 10 times faster, and depending on the type of connection, 100 times faster, than for a household using cable or DSL.

The people who need that kind of speed are scientists - astronomers, physicists, meteorologists, genetic researchers - who want to share lots of data with colleagues at other institutions.

Sometimes those data are so voluminous, they can't be sent over the same lines used by the rest of us. There is just too much traffic - too many eBay purchases, too many people sending photos of their babies, too many fancy Web pages being downloaded.

So the research data travel along dedicated lines - a light wave that is distinct from all the other light waves carried on a fiber-optic cable.

"We receive 12 gigabytes of data a day," said Tom Grzelak, the computer systems administrator for Rutgers University's Environmental Science Department. "We couldn't even think about doing that three years ago."

Now, 12 gigabytes probably doesn't mean much to most of us. To a meteorologist, however, it is a mother lode of information - satellite and radar images, temperatures, forecasts, and weather models from thousands of different places in the world. The meteorology department uses that information to help train students in predicting weather.

Another example of the network's potential: Astronomers on the U.S. mainland won't have to travel to a world-class observatory on a Hawaiian mountaintop for a close-up look at the firmament. Instead, they will be able to control the telescope - and view the results - from their own campuses.

Internet2's network is used by about 200 universities.

Until recently, only six New Jersey universities were connected to it - Rutgers, Princeton, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute of Technology, Seton Hall, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

But in January, about 40 smaller colleges, including all of the state's public four-year and two-year schools, began tapping into it. And a handful of school districts - including Passaic Valley Regional, Wayne, and Paterson - might get connected in coming months.

The fact that academia has created a second Internet is only fitting, since academia created the first one.

In the 1960s, when computers were so large they took up whole rooms, the Pentagon prodded scientists at a handful of universities to connect with one another, so they could put the scarce equipment to more efficient use.

For years, the resulting network was fascinating only to computer nerds. Then the rest of the world crashed the party. Academia now refers to the original Internet, somewhat disparagingly, as the "commodity Internet" - a term that implies a place corrupted by commerce and frivolity.

So a group of universities decided in 1996 to leave the party and create a more exclusive club. They pay $240,000 to $480,000 a year to connect to the Abilene network, named for the town in Kansas that was once a jumping-off point for the American frontier.

The network's speed is available to anyone at one of the member schools - even lowly undergraduates - assuming they are communicating with someone from another member institution. But most users wouldn't notice a difference between Abilene's speed and a conventional broadband connection.

"I can't imagine that the extra couple of milliseconds of speed for e-mail is something that anybody would notice," said Charles Hedrick, director of Rutgers' computing services. Delays become humanly perceptible at about 30 milliseconds.

But sometimes, every millisecond counts. Voice and video transmission will probably be Abilene's most widely used application. Currently, such communication is possible - but not very good - on the regular Internet.

"If we're doing a multisite class between four institutions, we can't tolerate any degradation in the voice getting there slower than the video," said George Laskaris, head of NJEdge.net, New Jersey's high-speed network.

Abilene's speed made possible a concert last year called Gigapop (it's a techno-geek pun - a "gigaPoP" is the abbreviated, technical name for Abilene's major connection points), in which musicians at Princeton and McGill University in Montreal performed classical Indian music together.

Although classical Indian music may not be everyone's cup of tea, Abilene will enable students to learn from teachers, experts, or fellow students from far away. Few high school students have yet benefited from such technology, but it's coming. Passaic Valley, which has already gone far beyond most schools in using videoconferencing technology, will probably be the first high school in New Jersey to connect to Abilene, most likely this summer.

To get a taste of what will be possible next year, six students at the school, which is in Little Falls, N.J., took part May 6 in a global videoconference using Montclair State University's connection to Abilene. The conference gave 118 schools - from places as far-flung as Barcelona, Tehran, and New Zealand - a chance to make a presentation to everyone else.

As the Passaic Valley students nervously rehearsed their lines, a second-grade class in North Carolina performed a skit called "Keep Earth Clean," and a high school in tiny Manokotak, Alaska, performed a series of Eskimo dances.

When Passaic Valley's turn came, they launched into their script - a description of their previous videoconferences with foreign students. Unfortunately, as they finished their remarks and asked the world for questions, the audio system crashed.

Videoconferencing in K-12 schools hasn't yet progressed much beyond such gee-whiz demonstrations. But the promoters of educational technology promise that as more schools connect to Abilene, and more museums, libraries, and scientific centers do the same, Internet in the classroom won't be limited to visiting Web pages.

Even further on the horizon is applying Internet2's power to the family PC. But Steve Corobato, director of network infrastructure for the consortium that manages Internet2, points to one possibility: distributing high-definition television signals over the Internet. Currently, the signals are coming over the airwaves, and to a lesser extent, over cable. A loftier purpose will be telemedicine, allowing doctors to closely examine patients from thousands of miles away.

Calling I2 "a cauldron of ideas," Corobato predicts that "a few of those will bubble out and enjoy widespread commercial availability."

In the meantime, you'll just have to plug along with your "high-speed" DSL or cable.

 

© 2004, North Jersey Media Group Inc.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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