The high-speed internet moved a stage closer last week with the demonstration in the United States of virtual surgery, broadcast-quality video and terabyte-size data library transfers over a national research network.
The network, Abilene, is a joint academic-corporate initiative, given political blessing last April by Vice-President Al Gore. The first stage, officially opened last Wednesday, links 70 research institutions through 13,000 miles of optic fibre cable looped between New York and Seattle and boasts a maximum data throughput of 2.4 gigabits per second.
Abilene is part of Internet2, a project harnessing the strengths of 130 universities, government and computer companies to develop the high-speed global network of the future for academic and commercial use.
But Abilene is experimental and built solely to serve the academic and research communities. Benefits for consumers will come later. These are expected to include enhanced security and guaranteed service provision. Meanwhile, academic networks in Europe should benefit from the results of the project.
The corporate partners in the Abilene project, Qwest Communications, Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks, believe that research non-disclosure is unproductive in an environment that thrives on open standards. Abilene academics will be free to share their discoveries and the universities will own part of the intellectual property created during the experiment.
In the next stage, Abilene's Synchronous Optical Network will reach out to all 140-plus member universities and speeds will rise to 9.6Gbps.
US academics are spoilt for choice in network development. Abilene is an initiative overseen by the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development, based at the University of Indiana. Internet 2's other project is a high-performance Backbone Network Service, provided by the National Science Foundation and MCI WorldCom for universities and research institutions.
Internet2 has joint development agreements with equivalent organisations abroad to stimulate exchange of research data and ensure that the world's high-speed networks will be compatible when they eventually link up around the globe. There are plans to link Internet2 with the Asia-Pacific Advanced Network soon, with the National University of Singapore acting as a hub.
Meanwhile, in Europe a joint venture company owned by Qwest Communications and KPN of the Netherlands will build a Pounds 32 million high-speed fibre-optic network linking research centres on the continent. KPNQwest aims to build a total of six rings connecting research communities in up to 40 cities and link these to Qwest's 18,500-mile North Amercan network. The European network will operate at up to 2 terabits per second.