Helena Flusfeder on what the boycott of a conference in Israel means for ITlinks with the Middle East. The Arab stay-away from last month's Joint European Networking Conference in Tel Aviv prevented a planned discussion of closer academic network links between the Middle East and Europe. Meanwhile in stark contrast the conference heard how within Europe, where the political obstacles seem minor when compared with those of the Middle East, there are plans for a continent-wide research and education superhighway operating at 34 megabits per second (Mbps).
JENC6 was the first conference to be held by TERENA (Trans-European Research and Education Networking Association) since its formation by the merger of EARN (European Academic and Research Network) and RARE (Reseaux Associes pour la Recherche Europeenne) in October 1994.
Having chosen an Israeli venue, the conference organisers were hoping to attract participants from the area, as they did last year when JENC5 was held in Prague. However, as TERENA vice president Bernhard Plattner said: "Our expectations in this respect were not fulfilled. We would have hoped to get more participants from surrounding countries."
A network technology training workshop for Middle Eastern countries was cancelled, and Saleem Zougbi, director of Bethlehem University's computer centre, did not arrive to present a paper at a forum on network infrastructures and information services in developing areas.
Both the workshop and the forum had very interesting potential in terms of getting the political players in the area together to discuss building networking infrastructures. However, psychological and political barriers got in the way.
In an interview after the conference, Zougbi said that Palestinian universities and institutions "do not have an Internet connection. They have a dial-up service to the United Nations Development Program, which connects to a leased line in the Hebrew University computer centre".
Since Palestinian academics are limited to a dial-up service, they can only send messages to their colleagues, to request papers and abstracts. According to Zougbi, the most problematic aspect is the link to the West Bank. While they "could have a leased line to the Arab Centre in East Jerusalem (PLANET), it would only benefit the people in Jerusalem and excludes universities such as An Najah University in Nablus, and Bir Zeit". Palestinian academics feel they need such a connection to include the universities there, and the Civil Administration in the West Bank is apparently reluctant to commit itself. The question is whether it would be in Israel's interest.
In his paper on "Palestinian Networking Options", Zougbi speaks out strongly for a direct connection between Palestinian academics and European information resources, free of Israeli control.
In the meantime, whatever the reasons, Zougbi and all of the other potential participants from neighbouring Arab countries missed out on the opportunity to meet their colleagues from all over Europe and Israel.
With 339 participants from 40 countries, JENC6 was sponsored by the Israeli phone company Bezeq, Cisco Systems, Digital, IBM, MCI, Netcom, Novell and Swiss Telecom. During the conference the Dan Panorama hotel and convention centre was connected to Europe and the United States by a special 2 Mbps circuit which was used for an interactive video broadcast. Terminals connected to the Internet were available to all conference participants.
This was the first time the JENC conference has been held outside Europe. "Europeans consider Israel as part of Europe in this sense - as far as networking is concerned," Bernhard Plattner said. He added that as a member of TERENA and as a country with an advanced technological level in networking, Israel was a suitable choice for the setting of the conference.
He said that the data communication capacity between Israel and Europe had been rather limited so far, and now during the conference, it was good. "There is no notion that Israel lags behind in technology. The only point is that Israel was rather weakly connected to the Internet in terms of capacity. It's being upgraded right now to 2 Mbps. We see Israel as integrated in European and world-wide networking as can be."
Israel's technological capacity, at least as far as its research community is concerned, is reflected in the Inter-university Computation Centre, which helped to organise the conference. The IUCC is an association formed by seven universities: the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Bar Dan University, the Technion, the Weizman Institute of Science, Ben-Gurion University and Haifa University. It pays for and owns ILAN, the Israeli academic network which was established in 1988 as an outgrowth of the Bitnet network that already existed in Israel.
According to IUCC information ILAN is currently connected to the Ebone, the European backbone network, by a 128 kbps fibre link running from Israel to Geneva and owned by Bezeq. The centre has decided to upgrade the line to 256 kbps. It also has a 256 kbps satellite Internet link to the United States. The centre's seven universities are connected to a nationwide metropolitan area network running at 34 Mbps. There are over 12,000 machines within ILAN, connected to the Internet.
In a witty and bright presentation David Hartley, who as chief executive of the United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association is responsible for the operation of the academic network JANET, called for the removal of barriers between European countries. He said that the public network operators, which own Europe's telephone cables, are the "only thing which could bring the world to the desktop. They have the fibre and we need access to it.
"They say they have the problem of trans-border communication. My idea to solve this is simple. Remove the border controls".
In the hotel lobby Hartley spoke about the formation of Ten-34, a plan for a Trans-European Network operating at 34 megabits per second. "There is already an information highway in Europe for research," he said. "The idea is, we want to add the word 'super' to it. The present highway is a communications medium on which we interchange data. That highway is not very suitable for the interchange of other sorts of information such as voice, video, moving pictures, complex pictures. The highway is congested: the interchange of data is such that the present capacity of the communication link is exhausted."
Hartley said the problem was to convince the public network operators that there is no intention of creating telephone services in competition with telephone companies.
"At the moment, we communicate over the information highway with electronic mail extremely effectively. If you could add video conferencing, where I don't have to go to a video conference screen, but just go to a work station, type the letters and the person is at the other end of the world there, and I can sit and talk, eyeball to eyeball and see facial expressions. You and I could have this interview that way. We couldn't have it by email, we couldn't do it by letter.
"We're talking about a quantum leap upwards from the information highway to the information superhighway. It was deemed important enough that we should have one plan between all the research organisations. Ten-34 was set up to have that one plan. It was set up to bring together all the national networks.
"We shall make use of existing systems, existing structures, and existing people. It is just a re-grouping, and this time it is a unanimous grouping of all the forces, all the different countries together and that's what's unique about Ten-34." Hartley thought that some sort of connection might be established at those speeds across Europe before the end of the year.
One highlight was a tutorial by Steve Deering of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, whose Stanford University PhD thesis forms the basis of the Internet Protocol New Generation. "The reason for IPNG is that the Internet is continuing to grow worldwide," he said. "It is the big public Internet which is growing so fast that it requires a new version of IP (Internet Protocol) because it has the potential of running out of addresses."
Four years ago the Internet Engineering Task Force, which develops Internet standards, looked at the growth of the net and estimated that addresses would run out by the year 2005. So they evolved a new Internet protocol, close to the version which Deering had designed. IPNG has a larger address space, it deals with Internet security issues and it supports mobile computers and multimedia.
The conference's direction was not always clear. It was supposed to be applications-oriented, but was in reality a strange combination of user-oriented sessions and theoretical policy-makers' presentations. It was, however, a unique opportunity for the heads of the top European networking organisations, policy makers, academics and Internet enthusiasts to get together, share ideas and technology and discuss the future.