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Internet2: Making the Connection

After a rousing discussion on the Civil Rights Movement in his American History class, student Jeff Johnson hits his community college computer lab and fires up Netscape, which launches his personal page in seconds across a high-speed Internet2 connection. Before he can get into his site, he's prompted by a dialogue box asking him to speak into a desktop microphone. Once approved by voice recognition middleware, Jeff can then access a customized calendar, e-mail, news headlines, and course information, including high-quality streaming video clips of the August 1963 march on Washington, DC that his history professor put together.

Sound like a technoid utopian fantasy? Think again.

Internet2 Applications

In a December 18, 2000, report about Internet2 on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, J'el Obermayer described some fascinating applications of Internet2. In one scenario, a grad student in Atlanta was able to remotely control a back h'e at a construction site in North Carolina. Using a joy stick, virtual reality (VR) goggles, and speakers that broadcast the sound of the machine, the student was able to simulate scooping and moving dirt—from hundreds of miles away. While it may sound a little silly, apply that same application to a site containing hazardous waste that would be impossible for humans to get to physically. Obermayer's piece mentioned another virtual reality possibility—face-to-face "meetings" in which attendees from different parts of the country can meet in the same virtual room. Besides VR opportunities, I2's potential for collaborative learning is immense. Obermayer highlighted another situation in which a trumpeter in Atlanta was able to perform with other members of his quartet in Oklahoma, watching and listening for cues through live streaming audio and video.

Applied to a community college environment, where the bulk of education is vocational training, these scenarios present a multitude of possibilities. In an auto repair class, students could disassemble and reassemble a VR car engine. In a nursing program, students could observe a live Web cast of an autopsy or practice giving shots to virtual patients. It also means that Jeff Johnson would no longer have to go to a library to check out "Eyes on the Prize"—he could just view it online. What's the current situation for connecting smaller universities and community colleges?

Lending a Hand in California

So far, connection to I2 has been limited to the 180-university consortium that can afford to shell out the $1-million a year fee to have access to a network with speeds 10,000 times faster than the current Internet. Member institutions are also expected to maintain the infrastructure necessary to support that 155-megabit bandwidth speed and the routers that deliver it, a joint price tag that usually runs up to $100 million a year.

According to a report by EDUCAUSE and the National Science Foundation for the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, it is imperative that community colleges and broader educational institutions become a bigger priority for receiving funds and education in order to effectively implement Internet2 connections. The philosophy behind the push is that there are an estimated 3 million more students attending smaller colleges than large, four-year baccalaureate universities. These students will soon be entering the workforce, and it's extremely important that they graduate with up-to-date computer skills, especially in an environment where U.S. companies are so desperately in need of IT workers.

Especially for community colleges, coming up with the kind of funding that may be easier for larger (and richer) institutions is pretty rough, if not impossible. In the past, in order to fund technology development, community colleges have either had to look into grants or hope to be taken under the wing of a nearby larger university or research facility. The most viable current option has been for community colleges to form partnerships with each other, larger universities, government agencies, or forward-thinking technology corporations like Cisco, which supplies the routers.

And that seems to be working—at least in California, where an initiative is under way to connect every Golden State college, university, and K-12 school to Internet2. The Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC) is the engine that's driving this plan.

As it stands, all California state university campuses and community colleges are connected to the Internet via 4CNET, a multi-college network based on CSUNet, which was developed in the mid-1990s to link all schools in the California State University system. The network then expanded to include the California Community College system, and changed its name to 4CNET. CENIC, on behalf of its charter members (the initial I2-connected institutions) will soon be submitting applications to the I2 consortium in order to allow all California state and community colleges, along with K-12 schools, access to Internet2. According to Dave Reese, the Director of Network Administration and Planning for the California State University, the CSU and CCC alliance will make the community colleges' transition to I2-land virtually seamless. Pending application approval, rollout will start as early as March 2001. Colleges will be responsible only for filling out the right paperwork.

Other States Following Suit

Groups like Southern Crossroads (SoX), a cooperative organized by members of the Southeastern University Research Association (SURA), and including a number of colleges from southeastern states, claims that its "mission is to connect both Internet2 and non-Internet2 members to each other and to the Next Generation Internet, thus enhancing opportunities for collaboration among university researchers at institutions throughout the Southeast," according to the SoX Web site ( In Western North Carolina, twelve community colleges have banded together and laid out a plan to "narrow the digital divide" and help each other with the daunting task of getting connected to I2.

Admittedly, progress has been slow—even the effort to roll I2 out to all four-year institutions has been crawling along. "As any state becomes successful, other states and consortia will jump at using this model," says Robert Doiel, an analyst at the Center for Scholarly Technology at the University of Southern California. "The challenge then will no longer be at the community college level, but will be at the K-12 level, were teachers need to be trained, appropriate tech staff needs to be hired, and districts just might not have the funds to support that."

At some point in the next few years I2 will successfully merge with the current Internet, every school will have access to it, and universities and research institutions will have moved on to the next big technological breakthrough, like wireless connections to I2.

"At the same time that this high-speed, hardwired network is becoming available, wireless networking is also coming of age," claims Doiel. "Most users don't understand how they are connected, just that they are connected. Depending on the connection type—hardwire or wireless—their experience could be completely different." He g'es on to say that wireless networks, while easier to set up and able to provide an incredible amount of freedom, cannot guarantee that ultra-speedy I2 connection. "And won't for some time," says Doiel.

In the meantime, we'll be waiting as the high-speed I2 train pulls into the station.

Syllabus Case Study

Partners in Time

Acouple of months ago, a representative of UCAID visited the campus of Seattle Community Colleges and told educators there of Internet2's plan to extend high-performance networking technology out to the broader education community. He may have been a little late.

Months before, Ron Johnson, vice provost and vice president for Computing and Communications at the University of Washington, had approached Alan Ward, then Seattle CC's vice chancellor of Technology, about an I2 partnership. In a state with strong legislative support for partnerships between universities and community colleges, the University of Washington, an I2 member, has cultivated just such relationships. According to Ron Hamberg, vice president for Instruction at Seattle Central CC, the university basically said, "We are part of I2, and would you be interested in some part of this? 'You bet!' was our reply."

Whereas applications have been a focus of the research institutions that make up the Internet2 community, for smaller colleges, the technology has come along before the applications are ready. "The first thing we did on I2," says Hamberg, "was an international broadcast of Handel's Messiah. It was a tremendous success." Ross Davis, general manager of Television and Cable Operations, arranged the broadcast, first through the college's TV channel, and then to all I2 members through the Internet.

Since that first broadcast, Seattle CC has become operational in the past month, developing two main applications: interactive TV and streaming interactive video. Using a fiber ring that connects the three Seattle CC campuses—North, South, and Central—the college can deliver voice, video, and data from one campus to the other two. In this way, courses that do not draw a large enrollment can still be offered live and interactively to a handful of students at each campus. Soon the school will be able to exploit the beauty of an I2 connection: multicasting. With this technology, Seattle CC will be able to share courses not only among its three campuses, but with colleges anywhere in the country.

Next on the agenda is streaming interactive video. Hamberg envisions students accessing resources that the school would not be able to offer students due to cost constraints. With streaming video, students could view space from the Hubble telescope or manipulate instruments in virtual laboratories. "This is how I2 becomes the great equalizer," explains Hamberg. "Not just MIT students, but those in Iowa or anywhere across the country, can have experiences previously out of their reach."

Despite the large bankroll necessary to become an I2 member, the partnership with the University of Washington made the connection financially feasible for the community college. Seattle CC picked up the $400,000 to $500,000 cost of becoming part of a citywide fiber-sharing project. Says Davis, "The fiber ring has the capacity of 600 T1 lines. With college funds and with donations from corporate partners, we built an infrastructure of 1.5MB streaming video cards and an Hitachi 2-terabyte storage server. To assure reliable and consistent video streams for Internet and Internet2 applications, 29 Dell servers are clustered around the Hitachi storage array." The college uses Microsoft Windows MediaPlayer as the video software platform. A system of routers, switches, and software engineering was custom designed by Cisco Systems.

But all this technology would do little without the support of the University of Washington. Its membership in I2 is part of the bargain for Seattle Community College. "This is how Internet2 will spread," says Hamberg. As large I2 members offer their memberships to local colleges, industry will follow with the necessary hardware and software, and the smaller colleges will bring big dreams and innovative ways to stretch small budgets." The ultimate dream of closing the digital divide will come. It's only a matter of time.

For more information, contact Ron Hamberg, [email protected], or Ross Davis, [email protected], both of Seattle Central Community College.

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