Already delayed by funding problems, plans for a new high-speed network in the United States have been further complicated by a lawsuit that has frozen millions of dollars collected for the project.
Officials developing the Next Generation Internet initiative, announced by the Clinton-Gore administration in October 1996, say the latest impasse could slow down their work by as much as a year.
"Are we hindered by it? Sure. Is it catastrophic? No," said Sally Howe, associate director of the National Coordinating Office for Computing Information and Communication. "We are making adjustments as best we can given the funding."
The Next Generation Internet had a setback last year when Congress failed to allot a share of its projected cost to the US Department of Energy, one of six federal agencies designated to develop it on a five-year timetable that began on October 1. The others are the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Nasa, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Now a court injunction has tied up $32 million that was collected by a private company, Network Solutions Inc, through a $30 surcharge on the cost of registering Internet addresses ending in .com, .net, .org and .edu. The company registered addresses on the government's behalf under an exclusive contract. The money was to have been handed over to the National Science Foundation toward its share of the Next Generation Internet's development.
A group of businesses complained that the surcharge was a tax which the science agency had no authority to levy. They filed suit, and a federal judge has blocked the fund from being used until the matter is resolved.
Internet activists are equally unhappy. They wanted the money collected from the surcharge to be used for research, not infrastructure, which is where the government hopes to use most of it.
Of roughly $55 million collected into the so-called intellectual infrastructure fund since 1995, $23 million was paid out to Next Generation Internet before the fund was frozen. Network Solutions stopped collecting the surcharge on April 1. The injunction is a big setback, as the money represents a large share of the estimated $105 million research and development cost of the project. Ms Howe said the most immediate impact would be on schools that had expected large National Science Foundation grants toward upgrading their campus networks to accommodate faster speeds and hook up to the new very-high-performance Backbone Network Service, or vBNS. "What we can't pay for is more connectivity," she said. The vBNS, which today operates at 622 megabits per second, is projected to be running at 2.4 gigabits per second by the year 2000.
The universities are supposed to establish so-called "gigabit-per-second points of presence" or GigaPoPs that will connect the high-speed Next Generation Internet to regional and local networks.
President Clinton urged support for the high-speed networks in his State of the Union speech, complaining that the existing Internet "is getting kind of clogged".
The Next Generation Internet is intended to provide connections 100 times, or at some favoured sites 1,000 times faster than today's Internet. In addition to the government agencies, 100 universities are to be involved. So far, 92 have been signed up. 77 of these are also involved in Internet2, the high-speed network comparable to the United Kingdom's JANET/SuperJANET that 120 research universities are setting up with government and private industry.
The future of Internet2 is entwined with that of the Next Generation Internet as both projects depend for the time being on vBNS for fast connections across the US. However Internet2 is not directly hit by the court decision.