Linking to Mexico: Connectivity Without Borders

Like other members of the Internet2 initiative, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) wanted to enhance its research and educational power by joining the consortium of U.S. universities linked to the ultra-high-speed network. But as a major university just miles from the Mexican border, it also wanted to play a role in linking Internet2 to a similar effort in Mexico and, from there, to Central America.
UTEP is one of only 30 Internet2 gigaPOP sites, which allows it to serve as an Internet2 host for other institutions. To encourage scholarly and cultural exchanges with Mexico, as well as to provide access to the latest technology in both countries, UTEP built a high-speed, point-to-point wireless network. The network spans about five miles from El Paso to Mexico’s Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez (UACJ). UACJ is a member of a Mexican initiative to develop a high-speed network compatible with Internet2.
UTEP opted for building a wireless network after running into obstacles with fiber. Although local telephone companies on both sides of the border could provide fiber to the universities, UTEP could not obtain an affordable fiber link to join the phone lines between Mexico and the United States. In fact, piggybacking on a 1-kilometer private fiber line that bridged the two countries before connecting to public phone lines would have cost an astronomical $17,000 a month. And laying its own fiber connection would have taken months of clearing regulatory hurdles in both countries, and more lengthy delays before construction could even start.
UTEP also investigated and rejected a microwave system that operated in a licensed frequency. To meet federal regulations, such a system required the university to conduct a time-consuming and costly survey of everyone operating in the same band to ensure that it would not cause interference.
Ultimately, UTEP turned to a 100 megabits/sec wireless solution from Proxim Corp., whose Tsunami network bridge comprises a system of small antennas and radio receivers/transmitters mounted on the roof of a building on each campus. "The network took less than three months to install because it operates in an unlicensed frequency, which eliminated the need for regulatory approvals," says Paul Maxwell, UTEP’s vice president for research and sponsored projects. "Because the radios create a proprietary network, they offer secure high-speed transmissions. And the system was affordable, costing less than $30,000."
This wireless link between UTEP and UACJ and another one in San Diego are the only two connections between the U.S. and Mexican high-speed research networks, providing redundancy and load balancing. UTEP connects to Internet2 using a 155 megabits/sec OC-3 fiber line.
The universities are planning to use the connection to further studies in environmental engineering sciences, materials science engineering, remote instrumentation, and biomedical and health sciences. For instance, Mexican and U.S. researchers will be doing advanced studies on how desert plants absorb heavy metals from mining to remediate contaminated soil. Using the high-speed connection, they can access Stanford University’s Synchotron—or a similar machine in Mexico—to remotely X-ray and study where the metals are deposited in the plant.
Researchers also are beginning to work with a binational commission to identify and improve cross-border health issues. By using the high-capacity connection to tap into large geographic information system databases, they will be able to track disease outbreaks and help pinpoint causes, or trace groundwater routes to new access points—a big issue for both the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
"The wireless network is helping us meet two other central goals of our Internet2 efforts: distance learning and exchange in Mexico and cultural enhancements and collaboration with Mexico," Maxwell says. In fact, the university is already exploring ways to expand the wireless connection to the local El Paso and Mexican school districts, allowing them access to Internet2 through UTEP.

For more information, contact Paul Maxwell at pmaxwell@utep.edu.

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