BT is safe for another year, with its contract as the major supplier of the SuperJanet academic network extended till March 1998. But in Australia it was a different story as the country's vice chancellors dumped the government-owned telecommunications authority, Telstra, as the manager of the Australian Academic Research Network (AARNet), the nation's biggest Internet network.
The vice chancellors have picked Telstra's private-sector competitor Optus, whose owners include BellSouth and Cable and Wireless, to operate AARNet and install a broadband multimedia network comparable to the Uni-ted Kingdom's SuperJanet.
Telstra assumed control of Australia's only national electronic network from the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee 18 months ago when it took charge of operating AARNet. The network included Australia's 37 public universities, the various departments of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and a number of commercial Internet service providers.
After growing dissatisfaction with Telstra's performance and pricing policies, the AVCC has chosen Optus to operate the network for the next five years. But Optus, the newcomer in Australia's recently established telecommunications duopoly, is still rolling out the optical fibre cables that will connect higher education institutions across the nation. Its technological capabilities have still to be really tested.
Deane Terrell, chairman of the AARNet board and vice chancellor of the Australian National University, would not comment on reports that the deal was worth Aus$20 million a year to Optus, or that the company's flat-rate pricing would effectively halve the tariff that Telstra was charging between the main cities.
The switch will certainly mean substantial savings to the universities, following changes in Telstra's pricing structures last July that increased costs to the institutions by three to five times.
Meantime, Optus is building a Aus$70 million data centre in north Sydney and spending Aus$50 million on asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technology that offers voice, data and video transmission. Optus says the contract with the vice chancellors will mean that AARNet users, including academics and students, will not only have their current email and Internet access but also video conferencing and teleteaching facilities.
Professor Terrell says the ATM network will vastly expand the potential for voice, data and video communication between campuses around the country - at high speed and greatly reduced cost.
"National video conferencing and teleteaching will be viable and cost-effective, and the network will be able to link interstate library and supercomputing facilities,'' Professor Terrell says. "We believe we will have capacity far in excess of what is initially needed and we are getting that additional capacity on terms very favourable to us.'' AARNet was originally established by the vice chancellors in 1990 to link all the nation's universities and it remains the country's biggest Internet network. When the initial contract with Telstra was signed in July 1995, AARNet carried some 80 per cent of Australia's Internet traffic.
That figure has fallen to approximately 50 per cent as private providers have entered the market, despite the fact that the flow of electronic data around the higher education and scientific sectors is tripling each year.
Under the new arrangements AARNet will develop into a privately-owned national backbone network.
Within each of the eight state and territory capitals, universities are already linked by high-capacity microwave. The interconnection of the eight regional networks by dedicated optical fibre cables will provide similar capacity nationwide for the first time. Theoretically, students attending the Northern Territory University in Darwin could take classes at Melbourne University.
Some institutions have not waited for AARNet to upgrade its capacity, and are already practising long-distance learning, with the students watching and inter-acting with a lecturer hundreds of kilometres away. At Melbourne University, medical students studying pharmacology spend up to six hours a week in interstate or intercontinental videoconferences using Telstra's dial-up ISDN service.
A growth in tele-teaching seems likely. Cuts in federal spending, and the need to meet a 15 per cent wage push by academics, has put institutions under pressure to shut down entire departments or to share courses with other universities.
Professor Terrell says the new network infrastructure will provide the opportunity to implement national traffic management strategies, including the establishment of national caches and mirror sites so reducing the traffic on Australia's costly international connections.
"The important thing is that we will be able to manage the traffic better and therefore use networking more efficiently.''