Where the Elite Meet — Electronically
Although the high price of joining the Internet2 is keeping membership down, many institutions are coming to realize they can’t afford not to join the club
By Jamilah Evelyn
AUSTIN, Texas — Two years ago, a handful of big-name universities put up some big bucks and announced their collaboration in the development of an advanced computer networking system — Internet2 — sure to revolutionize higher education. That is, for the institutions that can afford it.Designers of Internet2 — an advanced networking system able to support high-tech and research-intensive applications (see sidebar, pg. 44) — expect it to be 100 times faster than the current Internet. But hook-up will cost millions of dollars for institutions to upgrade their infrastructure, to hire sophisticated IT (information technology) personnel, and to research and develop state-of-the-art applications for the Internet’s newest incarnation.With just 141 members on board to date, though, Internet2 institutions comprise a small, elite chunk of higher education. And the multibillion-dollar project’s evolution has unfolded so far like a classic tale of the haves and the have-nots.The Goliaths of higher education — Harvard, Georgetown, and Stanford universities — will enjoy a network so much faster and more sophisticated than today’s commercial Internet, it would be like comparing a Model T to a TransAm. They will use it for technologies once thought to be the stuff of science fiction — digital libraries, virtual laboratories, and tele-immersion.Meanwhile, the vast majority of colleges and universities — small- and medium-sized institutions that remain community-based and cost-conscious — will be left behind, unable to afford the ticket price to the technological show of the century.The trouble with that scenario, as some higher education observers are now beginning to acknowledge, is the gross and, some might argue, needless inequities it will create between institutions. After all, many of the instructional applications and asynchronous learning devices Internet2 will make possible are just as applicable to classroom and laboratory environments at places like Fisk University as they are to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Indeed several minority-serving institutions could benefit from the research-intensive enterprises the Internet2 will bring. Currently, Florida A&M University is the only HBCU participating in the Internet2 consortium.In recent months, folks at smaller colleges and universities, higher education association officials, telecommunications industry executives, and even the schools that first embarked on the project, have attempted to uncover a role for smaller institutions in the making of Internet2. As a result, they’ve discovered that there are collaborations smaller colleges can participate in, applications instructors of every sort can benefit from, and other high-speed networks to which institutions can connect.
Outside the Inner CircleIn January, EDUCAUSE, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development gathered scores of IT administrators, instructors, and industry professionals here to discuss ways to spread the wealth, access untapped talent pools, and determine the needs of higher education’s proletariat. For three days they discussed existing opportunities for the broader higher education community, determined institution-specific obstacles to advanced networking and debunked exaggerated assumptions on its costs and requirements.Recommendations from the conference were submitted to the National Science Foundation last month.“We understand that underserved folks need better connectivity,” says David Staudt, networking outreach director for EDUCAUSE, a 1,600-member association for higher education professionals that seeks to transform colleges and universities through information technology.To help remedy that situation, the association has planned a dozen or so regional conferences over the next couple of years to keep colleges and universities that are not part of the Internet2 inner circle up-to-date on the project.The current Internet can support some video and audio, but those types of files often take a frustratingly long time to download and often are imperfect once received. The new Internet also will enable researchers to send video and audio files and other huge packets of information zipping around the country with near-perfect resolution.Although Internet2 has widely been perceived as a research-intensive endeavor, Staudt agrees that several initiatives have universal relevance to the higher education community. He suggests two ways for smaller colleges to become involved. The first is to partner with an Internet2 institution and pitch a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation for work in specific disciplines — such as chemistry, physics, or the earth sciences. If the project pitched requires network upgrades, it’s possible that the NSF’s networking division could fund those.The second is to collaborate with an institution that has received one of the NSF’s “High Performance Connection” awards. A list of those institutions can be found at <www.vbns.net>. Those institutions can then seek NSF funding to upgrade their network connections.Staudt also notes that 31 states plan to launch their own statewide broadband networks that will bring enhanced network capabilities much like that of Internet2. And in many of those states, minority-serving institutions are in line to get online. But even colleges that are not interested in the collaborations or that aren’t plugged in to statewide or other regional efforts should stay alert to new developments, says Heather Boyles, chief of staff at the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID), the nonprofit corporation to which all Internet2 members belong.“Things move fast in the Internet world,” she says. The technologies being developed today by some of the research universities may be coming very quickly … either via collaborations among other teaching colleges and some of the research institutions, or in the form of commercially available advanced Internet services.”Left Behind?Elite academic institutions aren’t the only ones staying abreast of the new network’s developments. Many high-tech firms are working side by side with university researchers to develop and test some of the innovative applications that Internet2 will make possible. And soon they’ll be courting the rest of the higher education community.Wilma Killgo is an account manager for MCI WorldCom who’s been working on getting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) online with her company’s new NGNet— the first commercially available nationwide high performance network.“That’s the network that we feel will serve those universities not being served by Internet2,” she says.Killgo is determined to see that Black schools, and consequently Black students, aren’t left behind in Internet2 like they were in the first generation of the Internet. Among the factors prohibiting most HBCUs from participation is the $50 million-plus that Internet2 universities are investing in the project.“At this point that’s cost prohibitive for HBCUs,” she says. But she adds that HBCUs have just as much to gain from many of the things advanced networking will make possible.She says that most colleges are catching on to the fact that they have much to gain from many of the applications to develop, but they’re still working on other obstacles.“Their question is, can we afford it?” Killgo says. “My answer is that you have all kinds of corporations who do all kinds of outreach with you and they’re involved with different projects with different portions of the university. It’s my suggestion that they get these corporations that are working with them to partner.“As an African American woman, I want to make sure that the schools my kids and my nieces and nephews go to are players in this,” she says. Charles Lee, also an account manager at MCI WorldCom, says that small colleges with small budgets are a tough sell. “We have to go out and educate them that this technology exists, it’s affordable and it’s here,” he says.But he adds that many colleges quickly will realize what they’re missing.“First, there will be a wave of the early adapters,” Lee says. “And as the early adapters come on board and spread the word amongst their compatriots and peers, then there will be a larger wave that follows that.“When the guy next door is on the network and some of these colleges see that they’re at a competitive disadvantage in attracting students, grants, and research loans, I think colleges will see that they can’t operate without an advanced network the same way things went with the first Internet.”Boyles adds that eventually, Internet2 access should become affordable, even for smaller institutions.“It’s the commercial marketplace that ultimately makes these technologies affordable,” Boyles says. “One goal of Internet2 is to drive these technologies as fast as possible so that the commercial marketplace might see the demand from the education community for advanced Internet services and decide to roll them out into their commercial services, so we can all buy them cheaper.”
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