Once it gets off the ground, this powerful new network will be able to move mountains of data, including entire libraries of audio and video files, at dazzlingly fast speeds.

by Warren Cohen

The phrase, "reach out and touch someone" has taken on an entirely new meaning at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. That's where scientists are developing the technology to transmit the sense of touch over the Internet. A three-dimensional device called a nanomanipulator collects data about an object. The information is sent across a network, and arrives at a controller that interprets the signals and applies varying degrees of electronic force to a human hand which enables it to "feel" it. Today, the research is done with atomic particles like DNA and viruses. But in the future, users might be able to feel objects like dresses and other clothing. This technology could eventually help researchers learn about the texture of distant objects just by logging on to their computers. It could also be useful for shoppers who could find out a lot more than they can now about items they want to purchase online.

Of course, this kind of data can't flow over an ordinary Internet connection. The amount of data it takes to transmit the sense of touch for a dress would clog a user's pipes for weeks. Enter Internet2, a joint university-government-corporate collaboration established to usher in a new age of fast-lane networking. Today, more than 180 schools and a number of commercial partners, including Cisco Systems, Qwest, Nortel, and IBM, are shelling out nearly $300 million annually to be part of a members-only network conducting key research on transmitting data at light speed.

Researchers are hoping that technologies developed on Internet2 will eventually become part of the current Internet. The new network may well follow the model of the original ARPANET, which was developed by a coalition of universities and the military and became the underpinnings of today's Internet. “There used to be no dot-coms on the Internet but today, it's so congested that it's not usable for its original purpose of collaborative research,” says Joe Thompson, a professor of Engineering Research at Mississippi State University. “Internet2 will develop applications and ways to use the Internet so as to speed it up for everybody.”

In this brave new world, users would be able to transmit 3-D and high-definition images, even entire digital libraries of rich audio and video files, in the blink of an eye. Higher speeds would also have an enormous impact on distance learning if all classes could take place in real time. Internet2 strives to create a network that is 100 to 1,000 times faster than today's Internet. For instance, if the newest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica were downloaded at a typical home- connection modem speed of 56 kilobits per second, it would take eight days. But at speeds 1,000 times faster, the same collection takes only 15 seconds—a pace that would turn today's Napster users green with envy. At the fastest connections over T3 lines, a full audio CD takes 17 seconds to transfer. But over a high speed Internet2 network, it takes less than a second.

Members of Internet2—government, universities, and industry—are using a variety of networks to test and develop advanced network technologies. The main one is called Abilene, which is named after the Kansas city that once served as the railroad gateway to the West, and operates at 2.4 gigabits a second, 45,000 times faster than the typical modem. This is about 600 to 1,200 times faster than even a T3 line, generally the fastest available connection on the original Internet. Another network, called the very high performance Backbone Network Service, or vBNS for short, also links up campuses. But even if two computer users have the same e-mail program, Web browser, and chat application, the speed advantages are only available if they both reside on one of the networks. If not, the speed is limited to that of the regular Internet.

Driving Force

Computer and software engineers are behind much of the Intenet2 technology, but engineers of all stripes will be making use of it. Computer scientists and software engineers are researching and testing ways to improve the speed of the networks, while civil, mechanical, and structural engineers are developing applications to take advantage of the increased speed. And fortunately, in many ways, today's Internet is poised to adopt the new speed technologies. Routers, which are the links between servers and nodes, are already capable of great speed, and cable, satellite and phone companies are gradually delivering broadband connections to the home. But the software controls and commands aren't yet sophisticated enough to tell the routers how to manage high-speed traffic and ease congestion.

Researchers are on the case, however. They are trying to develop a new form of multicasting that would expedite the transfer of huge files like video. Currently, if 10,000 users try to download a video file from a Web server, the information is sent across the network 10,000 times. Multicasting currently allows the server to send one copy and gives the network the smarts to replicate it and send it to 10,000 viewers. “Right now, sending out video is a burden to networks,” says Matthew Davy, a network engineer at the Abilene Network Operations Center at Indiana University. “We are trying to develop a software protocol in the routers that will let multicasting stream video to the right people at the right time.” Davy says that such techniques are still in their infancy. For instance, today's multicasting sends files to every user on a network, whether they request the information or not. If the user doesn't want the file, the computer must refuse it, which is a waste of bandwidth.
Another innovation now being tested is the building of various “lanes” where data can travel at different speeds. Urgent messages or information that must be absolutely accurate, such as a 3-D rendering of a human X-ray for telemedicine, may need to travel as high priorities without encountering any congestion. Researchers are trying to find ways to make routers quickly give preferential treatment to critical information. “We can't test this on commercial networks because they're not stable,” says Davy. “But we're trying to deploy these mechanisms on Internet2.”
Finally, software engineers are developing the next generation of Internet Protocol architecture. Right now, behind every Internet address is a series of numbers, or IP address. But as Web use has exploded, the commercial Internet is running out of digits. So Internet2 scientists are trying to expand the number of digits that can serve as a Web address. That will also allow everyday devices—such as air conditioners, watches, and cell phones—to get unique identities so they can be connected to the Web.

Online Autobahn

As transmission speeds begin to soar, engineers and scientists will be developing practical applications for the new technology. Two test cases are up and running already. At North Carolina State University in Raleigh, the civil engineering and computer science departments have teamed up to find out how to operate construction equipment remotely. To reduce the number of accidents on the job, engineers are exploring the idea that some equipment can be controlled from afar. Robots won't work because the equipment must use visual cues from the terrain to know where to dig. “A construction environment changes very often from day to day, so it's not suitable for pure robotic work,” says Mladen V. Vouk, a professor of computer science at North Carolina State. “But we can remove an operator from immediate harm by using a computer network,” he says.
The department has set up a backhoe in Atlanta while researchers in Raleigh try to control the giant piece of equipment. The shovel is equipped with a variety of sensors that send data back to the lab, and a camera is grafted to the seat so that engineers can see what they are doing. The sensors also relay audio cues in case the backhoe scrapes against an unexpected object in the ground. A high speed network is critical in transmitting this kind of data. “With the bandwidth constraints and delays of today's Internet, the backhoe would become out of sync with the operator,” says Vouk. “That could be dangerous.” Although current Internet transmission failure rates are as low as one in every 1,000 cases, Vouk says to make the remote system work the failure rate must be no higher than one in every million cases, which translates into just three minutes of downtime per year.
Stanford University's structural engineering department is using Internet2 to foster cross-border collaborations. Professors are working with faculty and students at Georgia Tech, and in Japan and Holland to share visually detailed blueprints and sketches of buildings. With the current Internet transfer rates, such drafts can't be transmitted without extended download times. The faculty and staff also use live videoconferencing to talk about current construction projects.

The technology may eventually allow planners, architects and structural engineers to make better use teleconferencing rather than always having to meet on site. “All the details of a plan and all the equipment can be pointed to from a remote camera,” says Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Renate Fruchter. “That way, everybody has access to a real view of the site details. Activities that take days or weeks, such as a request for feedback on design decisions, can be shrunk to hours.”

Of course, researchers caution that the efficiencies of Internet2 will take a long time to migrate into the private sector. While technology often advances much faster than expected, it could be many years before Internet2 applications become commonplace. But the wait might be worth it. “The original Internet grew up itself. We didn't design it,” says Mississippi State's Thompson. “This time we could do it right.”

Warren Cohen is a freelance writer living in New York City.