Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Internet2: consolidate education and research networks

Internet2, together with 27 other US national, state and regional research and education network organisations, has made a filing to the FCC to inform the development of the National Broadband Plan, which is due to be presented to Congress on 16th March 2010.

The filing (the full text of which is available here) sets out how the FCC plan could spur economic growth through strategic investments in high capacity networks that today connect community anchor institutions like universities, community colleges, hospitals, libraries, K-12 schools, and public safety entities. A similar approach for the UK has been flagged at various points throughout the Digital Britain debate, but with nothing like as much detail or consideration.

The filing (which acknowledges the previous Gates Foundation filing on the cost of connecting anchor institutions to fibre) makes some very compelling arguments. It sets out the concept of a "Unified Community Anchor Network" (UCAN) connecting all community anchor institutions. A UCAN doesn't need to be created; it just needs to be completed, by upgrading and extending the interconnected regional and national networks which currently serve the education and research community. Such development should be led by the R&E community:
"The Internet evolved into the economic and social powerhouse it is today as the result of large-scale demonstrations of new networking technologies in the R&E Community. It was only because the R&E community was able to build an operational network (initially the ARPANET and then the NSFNET) that its transformational superiority over the then-closed approaches to networking was demonstrated. The Internet in its current form exists because the world outside of the R&E community recognised the enormous advantage of an open, extensible network environment and wanted, perhaps even needed, to be a part of it."
Transparency is flagged as a key advantage of such an approach:
"...because the networks are run transparently - unlike those of the carriers - it is possible to determine where in the multiple hops from a desktop in Arizona to a desktop in Maine, or even in Europe, problems are occurring. These tools, along with a shared development of architecture and engineering plans, open budgeting processes, public operational ticketing and performance tools and regular communications among organisations, form the foundation of operational transparency in a multi-provider environment - empowering end users with the knowledge to hold their providers accountable for performance and service levels...The community wants to ensure that there is an open network that will be available to all, as its focus is on benefiting the public. Unlike for-profit companies, it does not need to be focused on shareholder profits."
But unfortunately, and dispiritingly, just as in the UK, those for-profit companies are extremely well connected and thus able to exert a huge influence over the debate. The FT highlight this in an article describing the challenges Google currently faces, despite having developed a close relationship with the Obama administration:
"...the question facing Google is whether its popularity among decision-makers will give it an edge over its political enemies, many of whom have been engaged in trench warfare over regulatory issues for decades and nearly always win...Google is attempting to curry favour on Capitol Hill through the usual tactics, such as hiring former Capitol Hill staffers, as well as unconventional methods, such as trying to educate politicians about how to use the internet in campaigns. People who are watching the company try to gain influence say it is using an intellectual approach in a town where “the best idea” does not always win."
I fear this excellent proposal is likely to suffer the very same fate. There are simply too many commercial vested interests too close the debate, on both sides of the Atlantic. If a company of the size and influence of Google struggles to get its voice heard, what hope for the R&E community?

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