Fifty research universities in the United States plan to spend as much as $200 million in the next five years to bypass the go-slow Internet.
The system, dubbed Internet II, is expected to be more reliable and faster. Delays and interruptions have vexed US academic users in particular, as they once had the network nearly to themselves. Traffic on long-distance links is doubling every four months, slowing many tasks and increasingly causing network outages.
"An important thing to remember is that the original goal (of the Internet) was research collaboration, yet our ability to do that is growing impaired," said Gregory Jackson, associate provost for information technology at the University of Chicago, one of the institutions behind the project.
Many major schools have created regional electronic networks or established dedicated links between, for instance, research labs at Princeton and the University of Chicago. Internet II will connect and formalise this costly patchwork of agreements, and at a lower price.
The process of connecting existing regional networks to each other is expected to be finished in six months to a year, according to participating schools. Rewiring their campuses to handle the additional load, however, will take longer and cost the most.
The backbone of Internet II will operate initially at 155 megabits per second. Planners say the speed will later be raised to 600 Mbps, and ultimately double that.
Meanwhile, the cooperating colleges are arguing about whether to seek government funds to help defray the costs. Some complain that government involvement would bring with it bureaucratic inefficiencies or interference.
Still, most say they are not likely to turn down the money. "The lion's share of the research that requires this kind of access is government-funded anyway," Dr Jackson said.
The government's higher-bandwidth project, called vBNS, may be incorporated into Internet II on some campuses. President Clinton has promised $100 million during this fiscal year toward vBNS and other measures to improve the Internet.
The rest of the expense is to be covered by membership fees from the participating universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan. Because of the high cost, Internet II is likely to be dominated by the nation's most prestigious campuses. Fifty have signed up so far.
Tony Durham adds: United Kingdom academics have enjoyed their own private network since 1984, with Janet and later the broadband SuperJanet operated by the UK Education and Research Networking Association (Ukerna). Janet was gradually converted to the Internet Protocol and became part of the Internet in the late 1980s. The US had a dedicated research network, NSFnet, until last year when it was privatised.
Internet II, with its provisions for advanced multimedia services, is likely to set standards that other countries follow. "Whatever develops in Internet II will influence what happens in higher education in other countries including the UK," said David Hartley, chief executive of Ukerna.
The US plan has again raised the issue of the high cost of Ukerna's existing transatlantic links which have a total capacity of 21Mbps. This will be inadequate for full collaboration between users of SuperJanet and the 155Mbps Internet II. "You really need the same as this across the pond," Dr Hartley said.
A few US and European researchers enjoy intercontinental links of this capacity. New York University's Courant Institute and GMD, the German national computing centre near Bonn are the first users of an experimental 155Mbps asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) link established by DeTeBerkom, its parent company Deutsche Telekom, and three other telecommunications companies.