We're still taking baby steps on the Internet

The Internet entered our personal and professional lives much like a summer
storm, almost without warning. It replaced traditional conduits for information and
transformed large pieces of our transactional businesses.


We now depend on the Internet. The Net is credited in various journals with driving a
$2 trillion global information and communications industry. Its use—and the market
capitalization of the start-up companies it has spawned—account for roughly a third
of U.S. economic growth in recent years.


More than 7.4 million Americans work in information technology industries and in
related occupations, earning wages that are more than 60 percent higher than the
private-sector average.


OK, so the Internet is big. Government information technology practitioners are
generally aware that today’s Internet is not really so new, based as it is on a
commercial network backbone system now more than 30 years old. The architecture originated
when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sought communications technologies that
would enable undisrupted, broadband communications.


But the current Internet is not the end-point.


The High-Performance Computing and High-Speed Networking Applications Act of 1993 set
continuous Internet development activity in motion. Congress continues to accept that
high-performance computing and high-speed networks are worthwhile tools for shoring up
national security, industrial competitiveness, research capability and the means to make a
wide array of material—including government services—available to an
information-hungry public.


The federal government is aggressively trying to ensure that applications achieved
through its R&D efforts stimulate the development of computing and networking
applications. In this manner, it supports wider access to network resources, to the
benefit of virtually everyone.


Few predicted just how pervasively the Internet would transform government and society.
And few can reliably predict what technology will emerge from the government’s
R&D to replace it. Still, as a follow-on to the high performance computing act,
Congress passed the 1998 Next Generation Internet Research Act. The administration’s
fiscal 1999 budget allocated $850 million for large-scale networking and high-end
computing and computation R&D, $110 million of it to go to the NGI initiative.


The NGI initiative—supported by DARPA, NASA, the National Institute of Standards
and Technology, the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department—is expected
to lead to networks that are more secure and reliableand much faster than existing
backbones. Wireless transmission and satellites—both areas of big-time
investment—are apt to have a large role in future networks. Such networks can
engender new applications in telemedi- cine and distance learning and could accelerate the
pace of scientific discovery.


But NGI is not the only initiative to upgrade the Internet. The University Corp. for
Advanced Internet Development, a consortium of 135 universities and the private-sector
research community, is developing what is known as Internet 2. This community expects to
create and sustain a leading-edge capacity for developing network engineering and
management tools and broadband applications for advanced research and education. Thus, as
in the development of technologies that led to the Internet, the next generation of
networking technologies will likely stem from study by the academic, government and
industrial research communities of premarket technologies—that is, technologies that
have passed beyond the laboratory but aren’t yet commercial products.


Two issues are likely to emerge. The first concerns potential jurisdictional disputes
over technologies and standards developed. If responsibility for new technology
development shifts away from government sponsorship, DARPA and its partner agencies will
have less influence over future technologies than they once did, making it harder for them
to justify healthy R&D budgets to Congress.


That doesn’t mean the government won’t be a leading user of Internet 2. So,
the second issue addresses the preparation required of federal agencies to accommodate a
new Internet. For example, after consolidating its disparate e-mail systems, will an
agency be able to operate the resulting e-mail system on new, higher-performance networks?


New operating systems will be required to manage not only faster data flow, but also
the merger of new media into e-mail. We will be considering faster streams of text and
multimedia electronic messages.


Even common commercial Web browsers will be ineffective.


Who can really know what will emerge from the broad spectrum of research now under way?
Predicting the evolution of NGI is really no more than crystal-ball gazing.


But you can bet no matter how fast transmission rates become, they will never outstrip
the thirst we have for visual information. For today, agency planners should stay focused
on existing IT products and service delivery.


But they should also expect that when NGI happens, it will come on fast. It is
therefore important not to skimp on training and acquisition of knowledge about
forthcoming networking technologies.


The bandwidth agencies dream of may not be here yet, but shrewd planners are already
thinking about services that will require those future pipes.


New solutions will be possible, but now is the time to start imagining the future
challenges.           


Robert Deller is president of Markess International Inc., an information technology
market research, sales and support company in Chevy Chase, Md. His e-mail address is bdeller@markess.com.



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