Faster, wider, deeper

April 10, 1998

Geoff McMullen (above) has taken over as chief executive of Ukerna, the company which operates JANET. Will the new broom make sweeping changes, Mike Holderness asks

If you stand still, you die." We are discussing possible new directions for Ukerna, and Geoff McMullen is blunt about the commercial imperatives. Ukerna can expand widthways, reaching parts of education rarely dreamt of by vice-chancellors. It can expand in depth, providing services closer and closer to the end user. It could do both - but it must do at least one. What Ukerna cannot expect is an ever-increasing flow of public money through the higher education funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee.

There is plenty to be getting on with while the company works out its trajectory in network space. SuperJANET III, the 155 megabit per second (Mbps) backbone, was completed last month on time. The new chief executive, arriving after 20 years at Royal Dutch Shell, has to deal with "a family of not-particularly-difficult internal issues. Ukerna still hasn't sorted out all the things a normal company would have been expected to do. We have to tidy up the personnel manual. We have to go for ISO 9000 quality certification for June."

There is the almost-routine doubling of transatlantic bandwidth later this year, and the implementation of the controversial Pounds 2 million in charges for incoming data to pay for this. After that, Ukerna needs to "review, with JISC, ways of making serious increases in transatlantic capacity to meet demand, without spending a lot of money." Though it is much too early to discuss the level of charges for data arriving across the Atlantic in 1999, the direction of change is unlikely to be downward.

All this represents Ukerna providing much more of the same service for the same user community. How might it expand its activities in new directions?

"Over the past two to three years - the time that Ukerna has existed as a separate company - questions have been raised over the definition of the higher education community we serve. 'Lifetime learning' is this week's phrase. It must seem dreadfully familiar to some older Labour politicians."

McMullen points out that, as well as the universities and research establishments,"we have more than 100 further education colleges connected to JANET, and 70-something schools". The more than 10 million pupils and students in schools and colleges look like an interesting new constituency for an academic network. Then there is the University for Industry and the National Grid for Learning.

"There's a presentational problem," McMullen notes. "We have to convince the existing customer base that we're not abandoning them. I am rather pleased with the strong bond I find between Ukerna as a supplier and the community it serves. Most businesses outgrow their original set of customers without abandoning them."

Might there not also be a problem with the rest of the communications industry? Microsoft, for example, is keen to participate in educational networks. "Every major supplier thinks that this market looks like a natural monopoly which should be theirs, as you can see from their willingness to seduce it. Every major supplier is in there."

Territorially-minded businesses might resort to legal or regulatory challenges. "We would need to be sensitive to Oftel and maybe some other regulatory bodies if we attempted to establish an unnatural monopoly," McMullen says. "But the onus would be on the challenger."

Before we see seven-year-olds with primary.ac.uk JANET email addresses, a great many agencies would need to be involved: "the DFEE, the DTI in a regulatory role, the Scottish and Welsh Offices and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. I haven't been in the job long enough to have an opinion on the capital funding questions. My interpretation of the consultation document on the National Grid was that the government was looking for a fairly large number of vertically integrated suppliers delivering to schools everything that they would need."

The other dimension of Ukerna's expansion-space is the provision of new services to existing customers. "We grew up as an internal service provider trying to provide cheap bandwidth - and services - within the academic community. The price of connectivity through Ukerna is lower than it could conceivably be through the institution acting individually. Our added-value services have been a bit of a hotchpotch: various applications, gateways to enable interworking with other communities, training, videoconferencing and a very high quality incident detection and management service to deal with hacking and the like."

How, then, might Ukerna expand its services? McMullen sees opportunities for it to outsource "central management of metropolitan area networks, and local area network services within institutions - including helpdesks. These are not core functions for the institution. There are definite economies of scale: the number of helpdesk staff rises much less than linearly with the number of seats.

"And," he adds, "whatever the size of our user community, there is a market for the provision of routine, standardised content. I see no reason why we shouldn't do that as an Internet service provider. I see no reason why we shouldn't do it in co-operation with other institutions. The Open University springs to mind - as do the very exciting developments in lifetime learning we see in such companies as Unipart, Ford and British Aerospace. These companies are beginning to offer employability as well as employment."

It is the future of bandwidth-hungry multimedia services that leads the discussion inexorably back towards economics. Videoconferencing will expand: "You can't do slow-scan of a surgeon doing ticklish surgery on a nerve - you need real speed in with synchronised sound, about 2Mbps. LiveNet was showing what could be done ten to 12 years ago - it's now beginning to be quite normal . . . if the number and dispersion of sessions increases, that will stress the network."

Next, the probable growth of central libraries offering video on demand for the arts and humanities is more demanding yet. A pilot project has begun (Multimedia, February 13). "Each user needs five to eight Mbps in real time. You don't need many of those sessions and you overload the backbone. Things like local caching and mirroring can help - but the maths and the legal issues are both hard."

In the longer term, "long-distance collaborative virtual environments are potentially horrendous users of bandwidth. You're going to have all those seats with their independent views."

As individuals begin to demand the kind of bandwidth that an institution would have had a few years ago, McMullen is confident that Ukerna can handle the technical challenge. The crunch comes in the economics. "The growth in demand has ultimately to limit the funding bodies' willingness and ability to pay," he concludes, "so charging becomes inevitable".

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