Australia's vice chancellors have put a price barrier on their gateway to the global Internet. Institutions will pay more to fetch a web page from overseas than they would pay to fetch the same page or a similar one from a site within the country.
The move was made possible by last year's introduction of usage-based charging on the Australian Academic Research Network.
Expensive and congested international Internet links may spur other countries to follow Australia's example. The UK funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee has complained of the high prices it pays to use the telecommunications companies' international cables. In December, AARNet manager George McLaughlin visited the UK and discussed recent Australian developments with members of the JISC Advisory Committee on Networking. He also met Geoff McMullen, recently appointed chief executive of Ukerna, the non-profit company which operates JANET and SuperJANET.
Mr McLaughlin says vice chancellors adopted differential pricing to reduce Australian academic reliance on overseas sources of data. He says the Australian Vice-chancellors Committee wants to encourage academics to develop their web sites and to cache foreign material locally where others can use it without going outside the country.
Until early last year, the AARNet system had been managed by the government-owned telecom authority, Telstra. Then, following increasing dissatisfaction with Telstra's pricing policies, the vice chancellors switched to a private newcomer, Optus. The major shareholder in Optus is Cable and Wireless, which recently won the SuperJANET phase 3 contract in the United Kingdom. Mr McLaughlin says the switch from one telco to another took a lot of effort but it went relatively smoothly, given the technical complexities involved.
The only hiccups were provision of the international capacity, which was scheduled for July but delayed to the third week in August, together initially with poorer response from certain overseas sites - a problem that Mr McLaughlin says is being progressively resolved.
Universities in each of the capital cities were linked by high-capacity microwave but the interconnection of the eight regional networks, via private dedicated optical fibre cables supplied by Optus, has allowed this capacity to be exploited nationally.
The vice chancellors lease the cables from Optus and can put as much traffic along them as they like. However, they pay for the flow of data coming in from outside the regional networks, including overseas.
Mr McLaughlin said that the new network infrastructure means national traffic management strategies can now be implemented. These include establishing national caches (which automatically store copies of frequently-requested files) and mirror sites (complete copies of overseas sites), so reducing the demand for international connections. All Australian universities and many departments operate caches. A working group is developing a national caching strategy to reduce the number of times each file is fetched from abroad.
At the start of 1997, universities were receiving 4,500 gigabytes of data a month; when the academic year begins in March that figure is likely to reach 8,500 GB and may go even higher. Meanwhile, the international data flow is expected to be running at more than 35 megabits per second - an eight-fold increase in two years.
Internet congestion is not the only item on the vice chancellors' agenda. They are also keen to promote Australian content. AARNet's international pricing policy is intended to provide a modest incentive for local content developers, but by itself it will not make much difference.
"We will be investigating developing search engines that look for Australian content first, rather than unnecessarily fetching overseas material," Mr McLaughlin said, adding that the policy of charging the receiver rather than the sender "encourages the developers/providers as they are not penalised for developing popular sites of quality material."