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Last Updated: Friday, 5 November, 2004, 18:29 GMT
Internet heads into the super-fast lane
Ian Hardy
By Ian Hardy
BBC Click Online North America technology correspondent

Some believe the internet is struggling to survive under the strain of technical limitations, government interference and the proliferation of malware. But in the US, a new, improved internet is already being worked on.

Abilene network
The Abilene network stretches right across the US
Audio and video may one day be delivered to our desktops 1,000 times faster than today's consumer broadband services.

This is the long-term goal of the Abilene Network in the US, part of an ultra-fast global highway.

The network is administered by an organisation called Internet 2 and currently sends data at about 10 gigabits per second around the country.

Linking locations means that a jazz ensemble at the Manhattan School of Music can perform for students thousands of miles away in Texas.

The video is full-screen and the music is stereo, which takes an awful lot of bandwidth: 15.4 megabits per second, to be exact.

Advancing the frontiers of what you can do with the internet is sometimes a little expensive
Gary Bachula, Vice President of External Relations, Internet 2
Christianne Orto, Director of Distance Learning, Manhattan School of Music, says this is "about 275 times faster than your 56kbps dial-up modem that you might have in your home.

"It is tremendously faster."

Membership of Internet 2 has its privileges, but does not come cheap.

Gary Bachula, Vice President of External Relations for Internet 2, explains: "An average university that joins Internet 2 will probably spend as much as half a million dollars to upgrade their campus network.

"So it's not cheap today, but we are advancing the frontiers of what you can do with the internet and sometimes that's a little expensive."

Revolutionary resolution

At a recent demonstration in the Internet 2 offices in Washington DC, divers nearly 3,000 miles away in Monterey Bay, California, gave a live seabed tour to the group.

Diver
Internet 2 may help with studying the oceans and fundraising
Guests were able to have two-way conversations with the underwater team.

Among those present were marine non-profit organisations, which are hoping the technology will increase awareness of the plight of oceans and therefore help with fundraising.

Lori Arguelles, Executive Director of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, says: "The surface of the sea is an incredible barrier.

"What we need to do is get into the world of those critters. We need to better understand them, better connect with them.

"I think that Internet 2 and the technology that is here can only enhance those connections and, as a result, the work that we do in the fundraising community."

Others talk of 24-hour-a-day, live, underwater feeds via the internet as a way of monitoring protected areas, but also to study aquatic life up close for extended periods without humans being present.

Dan Basta, Director of the National Marine Sanctuary Programme, says: "High definition allows you to see it at a level of resolution that you have never seen it before.

"You can't find it that clear and detailed in a book. You can't see it with that clarity any place else."

Hurdles

Double bass
Latency means remote musicians cannot play together yet
Internet 2 has been around since 1996, but there are still hurdles to overcome before musicians can play together across great distances.

Christianne Orto explains that there is still latency in Internet 2 networks.

"There's an encoding and decoding delay, and there's also a transmission delay.

"We've got it down in the Internet 2 community to about 100 to 300 milliseconds. However, that's still too long for musicians to play together simultaneously at remote locations.

"We have to bring that number down a lot further. We have to get it to, say, a 10 millisecond timeframe so they can start to feel like they're playing in time."

And there are those who believe that although Internet 2 is a useful educational tool, it cannot replicate a live performance, which is best enjoyed by being in the same room.

Marta Istomin, President of the Manhattan School of Music, says: "It will never, ever be a substitute for one-on-one.

"Music is to be experienced personally, not through recordings. But if you can have both, then enjoy both."

It is easy to get excited about all the applications and uses that Internet 2 is being put to in America and in different forms around the world.

But it could be years before speeds like these make their way into the home.


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