Academics at geographically remote institutions could be the losers in the forthcoming upgrade of the SuperJANET network, which will provide faster connections at 34 to 155 megabits per second (Mbps) between metropolitan area networks (MANs) in densely populated parts of the United Kingdom.
Unless they can justify a special investment in higher bandwidth connections to their sites, institutions not on a MAN and too remote to be connected could be disadvantaged in research areas such as telemedicine and scientific visualisation.
Contracts for SuperJANET phase 3 were meant to be signed by September 1 but the deadline was missed, putting the planned completion by December 1 at risk. No date has been given for the announcement of chosen suppliers, but a spokeswoman for Ukerna, which operates the UK's national academic networks, said the decision was "imminent". The project could cost up to Pounds 10 million, according to unofficial estimates.
At last week's launch of the South Wales MAN, linking 13 campuses in eight Welsh higher education institutions from Swansea to Newport, Welsh education minister Peter Hain described the initiative as "critical" and, echoing the Dearing report, said he hoped the MAN would strengthen links with industry. But the event also highlighted conflicting demands and expectations within the academic community.
According to south Wales academics present at the launch, the locations of institutions such as Aberystwyth, Bangor or North East Wales Institute will make it difficult for them to justify the provision of connections at 155 Mbps to the MAN networks. The same problem would face remote academic outposts elsewhere in the UK.
But according to Tom Wiersma, network manager and Association of University Teachers president at the University of Wales College of Cardiff, a priority among academics, including himself, is the flow of information within the institution and between its sites.
Mr Wiersma sees bottlenecks at a local level as more important, due to the sheer volume of information flow within the institution.
Cardiff already has plans to upgrade its existing 100 Mbps Fast Ethernet network by a factor of ten to the new Gigabit Ethernet technology, which Mr Wiersma prefers to the established ATM technology even though ATM is widely used on MANs and SuperJANET. Equipment will arrive within six months for trials. Individual institutions which instal the very latest network technology as it becomes available will probably always be able to outperform the external networks to which they are connected.
John Martin, director of computing at Cardiff, where the MAN launch took place, warned that the hoped-for industrial links had yet to be developed.
He said: "We used this launch to show the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) how well their investment was working and we know they and the minister were impressed, but as for industrial collaboration these are very early days."
Meanwhile, international bottlenecks are a cause of continuing concern for JISC. For Ron Rogerson, secretary of JISC's Advisory Committee for Networking, the main headache is intercontinental and transatlantic traffic.
"We have been in a state of crisis for some time," he said. "The introduction of a 45 Mbps circuit to the United States has eased the problem, but that is now operating at 90 to 95 per cent capacity and we face a return to crisis early next year. The World Wide Web traffic is the great new thing and that led to a surge. Charging for individual use is very definitely on the agenda as one way of limiting traffic growth."
But Dr Martin put the blame for this squarely on the telecommunications operators' own tariff framework.
"Telecom companies are making a good margin at present and there is no incentive for them to invest," he said.