Fastest Internet Ever Coming Your Way

by Barry Levine,

Someday, we might conquer the vast distances of space and visit the stars. But right now, on this planet, we are on the verge of eliminating distance itself. And the vehicle for eliminating distance is the next generation of the medium you are now using: the Internet.

The current Net has little to impede you as you search for information. If you want to find the exact height of the Eiffel Tower, for example, and also see a small video or a photo of it, you can, within seconds.

But if you want to have a live conversation with someone standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, at night, as if they were on the other side of a clear window -- with the tower shimmering in more realistic detail than you can absorb -- you have two choices. You can either fly there right now, or you can use a PC hooked into the next-generation Internet.

That's right: An Internet that leaves the current Internet in the dust is within reach. Some lucky individuals have already seen the possibilities thanks to the next-gen Net's major research network, a consortium of more than 300 universities, research labs, government agencies, and corporations called Internet2.

The Other Side

In 2005, at a conference in San Diego, a team from the University of Washington showed two high-definition screens. On one screen were small head shots of seven people, stacked in a "Hollywood Squares"-style grid. On the other was a single head shot of a different person, who was talking. All of the people were in different physical locations, meeting together live via uncompressed high-definition video transmitted over Internet2.

"It was a lot different from what we have been calling a 'videoconference,'" says Michael Wellings, engineering director for streaming media and broadcast at UW.

"Some of the people held up sheets of paper to the camera, for the others to see on their screen, and the writing on the papers could be read," he remembers. "It was literally like seeing someone else on the other side of a glass window."

The demonstration in San Diego was one answer to the big question of next-gen Net: What would people do if transmission speeds were practically unlimited on the Internet, if delays were not an issue?

As it turns out, most of the answers involve eliminating the distance between people.

To make video transmission and personal interaction so immediate that the remoteness of the participants is erased, you need lots and lots of bandwidth. Bandwidth is the speed at which information -- text, pictures, video, and other data -- is carried over the Internet. You can visualize the now-vanishing dial-up Internet, with modem speeds of up to 56 Kbps, as a leisurely country lane. Broadband Internet, such as DSL or cable (1 to 5 Mbps), might be a regular street that you travel to get to work.

But the next generation of the Internet, with bandwidth starting between 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps and climbing from there, is a superhighway.

There are many high-speed networks that, collectively, can be considered the next-generation Internet. But central to the development of new applications is Internet2.

Founded in 1996, Internet2 is and will remain a research test bed. "Internet2 will never become part of the public Internet," says Lauren Rotman, a spokesperson for the Internet2 consortium. "Internet2 is a stepping stone between the lab and the commercial marketplace, and will always be a testing ground. But we hope the technologies we develop will make it to the public."

Assemble the Musicians

Much of the research is based around Internet2's high-performance backbone, called Abilene, that currently runs at up to 10 Gbps. But Internet2 is planning to upgrade Abilene to 80 separate channels of 10 Gbps each, using different wavelengths transmitted over fiber-optic cable. These channels could produce a mind-boggling 800 Gbps of bandwidth.

With so much speed and so little delay, unthinkable projects become possible. You could send high-definition video uncompressed to heighten it to a hyper-realistic level; use multichannel digital sound; display real-time-generated 3D graphics; control remote devices with no latency; or harness separate, powerful computing facilities into one mammoth virtual machine.

Or you could transport an orchestra.

In 2001, famed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas stood on a podium at the New World Symphony, a postgraduate music school in Miami. Simultaneously, in New York, a 40-piece student orchestra and a student conductor were at the Manhattan School of Music. During an entire master class transmitted over Internet2, Thomas conducted and instructed the students as they played Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in a way that the composer never imagined -- across hundreds of miles, in real time and in high-definition video and audio.

The New World Symphony has plans to build a $100 million Frank Gehry-designed facility in which all practice rooms and performance spaces will have Internet2 connections.

"Internet2 is essential to us," says Tom Snook, New World Symphony's chief technology officer. "It actually removes all spatial boundaries between individuals, allowing people to be in the same space. When we have our musical fellows in an Internet2 room, within about five minutes they totally forget about distance and act like they're in the same space with the other person."

Doctors Without Borders

Sharing physical space with another person would seem to be a basic requirement for some kinds of interaction -- like, say, surgery. But, amazingly, the next-gen Net is removing that prerequisite.

On September 7, 2001, less than a block away from the World Trade Center in New York, Dr. Jacques Marescaux conducted the first "telesurgery" in history. Using robotically controlled laparoscopic tools and a network connection of up to 40 Mbps, he removed the gall bladder of a 68-year-old woman in a hospital in Strasbourg, France.

The "minimally invasive" laparoscopic tools used by Marescaux have a video camera and surgical instruments at the tips. Watching a live video feed from inside the patient, the surgeon performs the operation with the instruments inserted into a series of small incisions. Compared to a large incision, the smaller cuts reduce pain, recovery time, and risk.

This historic operation was performed as a "proof of concept," says Dr. Timothy Broderick, director of the Advanced Center for Telemedicine and Surgical Innovation of the University of Cincinnati. Telesurgery has many applications for NASA and the military, and could improve emergency medical procedures in remote areas. Other doctors were in the operating room in France, but the procedure itself was conducted across the Atlantic Ocean, with only video and audio guiding the surgeon.

Although this medical turning point was lost in the events of September 11, it broke a barrier. Since then, more than two dozen successful telesurgeries have been performed, including colon removals and hernia repairs.

"On a network with sufficient bandwidth and quality-of-service," Broderick says, "it's like you're operating on a patient in the same room."

One experimental project, still in the development stage, is the Defense Department-funded "Trauma Pod," a portable operating room that would allow telesurgery on the battlefield. There would be at least one major difference from the first telesurgery, however: The patient would be the only human in the operating room. All of the other operating-room personnel would be robots.

Plumbing the Depths

The next-gen Net not only can save airfare or enable remote-controlled surgery, but also can become an underwater portal.

Robert Ballard is one of the most famous explorers alive. He discovered the wreckages of the Titanic, the German battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier Yorktown, and John F. Kennedy's legendary PT-109.

In 2004, Ballard and crew revisited the Titanic, nearly 20 years after his initial discovery. Using Internet2, he broadcast live video from

12,000 feet below the North Atlantic. This real-time sharing is a key part of Ballard's vision to make "telepresence" intrinsic to his expeditions.

In 2005, a remotely operated vehicle made its way underwater as part of Ballard's expedition to explore hydrothermal vent fields in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Back in a lab at the University of Washington, Associate Professor Deborah Kelley steered the craft, as if she were playing a video game, over Internet2. Live video feeds went to classrooms across the U.S.

"We can't do this with the commodity Internet, because of latency," says Tom Dudchik of Immersion Presents, an after-school science-education program founded by Ballard. "Commodity Internet" is researcher-speak for the regular Internet. "With Internet2, there is no latency, no delay, no need to wait for the vehicle to react or to overcompensate. I push it (remotely), it goes."

Immersion's underwater television schedule includes a host with the appropriate name of Ernie Kovacs. But this Ernie Kovacs, in contrast to his early-TV pioneer namesake, performs in such locations as 60 feet below the ocean's surface, in an underwater kelp forest off Monterey Bay, California.

Exploring the ocean floor, the diver Ernie Kovacs answers live questions from schoolchildren around the country, who watch his live video program in their classrooms over Internet2.

Galaxies and Gridirons

When the Next Gen Net removes barriers of distance, it often removes barriers to cooperation as well.

Take astronomers, for example. In the old days, when they wanted to use one of the remotely situated, massive observatories, they had to pack their bags and hope that their chosen telescope, high on some mountain top, would bag a celestial treat.

But with the arrival of Internet2, astronomers can now sit in the comfort of their own homes or offices and remotely control massive telescopes -- like the Gemini Observatory telescopes in Hawaii and the Chilean Andes, or the legendary telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico.

More important, Internet2 is also enabling scientists to combine collections of massive amounts of data from these and other facilities worldwide and analyze them in real time -- essentially creating extremely powerful, virtual telescopes.

Or take football teams. About 110 NCAA schools regularly exchange videos so they can see their next week's opponent without sending scouts. They used to send films; now, hard drives or DVDs of broadcast-quality video are shipped. "By the last week in the season, about one-quarter terabyte's worth of video is FedEx'd," says Chris Thomas, a network engineer at UCLA.

Using the regular Internet for sending this video is possible, but highly inefficient. "It would take forever," said Thomas. "Plus, we would have the (excess) download charges."

By taking advantage of a California high-speed regional network, however, athletic departments now exchange videos easily, quickly, and inexpensively. This kind of high-capacity network "is the opposite of the commodity Net," Thomas says. "It says 'send as much as possible.'"

The Waiting Game

With these high-capacity networks practically asking to be used "as much as possible," when will the general public see the next-gen Net?

In part, we already are. According to the Internet2 consortium, there are about four million people -- including students in grade schools and colleges, and researchers in university, corporate, or government labs -- using extremely high-speed networks. The students in particular are expected to hasten the technology's mainstream adoption. "They're going to graduate and move into the world, and that's going to drive demand in the marketplace," says Internet2's Rotman.

Many of the next-gen Net projects are accessible to the public in formats that allow viewing on DSL or cable modem. The University of Washington, for instance, runs ResearchChannel, a consortium of 30 universities and organizations. Immersion Presents regularly makes taped videos of its expeditions available at its Web site.

Commercial uses of the next-gen Net are beginning as well. For example, Ruckus Networks in Herndon, Virginia, uses high-speed local area networks to deliver legal versions of movies and music from college-situated servers to students. Recently, it began using Internet2 to deliver new offerings to the University of Idaho.

But when will we have, say, 40 to 100 Mbps or more in the home? "Internet speed is only as good as the last mile," notes Sowmyanarayan Sampath, an analyst at the Boston Consulting Group, a technology research firm. The main backbones of the old, familiar Internet are already fiber optic; it's that last leg to your home that's the problem, as transmission usually comes over on slower phone or cable lines.

"It will be three to four years before very high speed connections start really moving into homes in the U.S.," he says, as either fiber or as new upgrades of DSL or cable. He expects that fiber itself will probably add between one and two million homes each year.

The More Things Change

Regardless of when the next-gen Net makes it to your home, get prepared to watch a high-definition version of "The Matrix," on a whim, while sitting on a park bench.

"I expect that we will see downloadable high-definition video to cell phones with heads-up, high-resolution glasses within the lifetimes of the people reading this article," says Michael Wellings, engineering director at the University of Washington. According to Laurie Burns, director of member and public relations at Internet2, the consortium is using wireless in several projects.

In the meantime, it's useful to remember what's changed and what has not. Our everyday Internet has become an information and communications pipeline, encompassing mail, text conversations, dictionaries, libraries, telephony, even videoconferencing and television. But more than a decade after the first Web browser became commonplace, we still have movie theaters, paper birthday cards, and meetings between people in the same building.

The next-generation Internet, as a window, might change forever the need for travel, shipping, surgeons in the same city, or standalone observatories. But it is likely that we will still go to conferences, use overnight delivery services, and be operated on by people who are standing in front of us.

Even when physical distance is dissolved by bandwidth, we'll likely find new reasons to get together in real space. As the New World Symphony's Shook notes: "We'll never replace live interaction in the same room with other people."

But we're getting pretty close.

Copyright 2006 NewsFactor Network, Inc.

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