IMPORTANT - National Research and Education Network
kristoff at GENBANK.BIO.NET
Mon Apr 8 14:26:19 EST 1991
The following excellent article describes the issues involved in the
development of the National Research and Education Network here in the
U.S. I would encourage everyone to read it carefully because the
issues are important to all of us. My thanks to Irene Eckstrand at
NIH for sending this to me.
kristoff at genbank.bio.net
((NOTE: A 3-COLUMN FORMAT MS WORD 4.0 Mac VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE IS
AVAILABLE. CONTACT MATISSE ENZER MATISSE at WELL.SF.CA.US))
This article originally appeared in the Spring, 1991 issue of Whole
Earth Review (issue #70)
Whole Earth Review is a quarterly magazine of access to tools and
ideas. Published by POINT, a California nonprofit corporation.
Editorial office: 27 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, CA 94965;
415/332-1716. Subscriptions $20 per year for individuals, $28 per
year for institutions; single copies $7
Highways of the Mind or Toll Roads Between Information Castles?
By Roger Karraker Illustrations by MATT WUERKER
Copyright 1991 by POINT and Roger Karraker
This is not an article about technology. It's an article about human
needs. For example:
=> A doctor telecommunicates a CAT scan from her small hospital to
the nearest major medical center.
=> An MIT professor uses his desktop computer in Cambridge to tutor a
talented young physicist on a reservation in rural Montana.
=> Biologists scattered around the world exchange data on an hourly
basis, coordinating their effort to map the human genetic code.
=> A grassroots political organization gets the word out about a
meeting, just in time to mobilize for a municipal legislative session.
=> Each of these activities, science-fiction as they might sound,
actually are happening today, courtesy of computer-mediated
telecommunication networks. The future of this technology is a matter
of much behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Roger Karraker, instructor in
journalism and Macintosh at Santa Rosa Junior College, has teased out
the key issues from a politically and technically complex debate.
A quiet but crucial debate now under way in Congress, in major
corporate boardrooms, and in universities, has the potential to shape
American in the 21st century and beyond. The outcome may determine
where you live, how well your children are educated, who will blossom
and who will wither in a society where national competitiveness and
personal prosperity will likely depend on access to information.
The battle is about who will build, own, use and pay for the
high-speed data highways of the future and whether their content will
be censored. These vast data highways, capable of sending entire
libraries coast-to-coast in a few seconds or sending crucial CAT scans
from a remote village to urban specialists, could be linked in a vast
network of "highways of the mind."
The backbone of these communications networks will be built of fiber
optics, hair-thick strands of glass, transmitting digital pulses
thousands of times faster than ever before. In addition to their
speed, fiber optics bring with them an environmental bonus: fiber
optics are made of silicon, the earth's most common element and the
growing use of optical fibers will mean much less demand for
traditional cables composed of copper, an element whose fabrication
causes much environmental damage.
Futurist Alvin Toffler says the future of the United States depends
upon the creation of these networks. "Because so much of business now
depends on getting and sending information, companies around the world
have been rushing to link their employees through electronic networks.
These networks form the key infrastructure of the 21st century, as
critical to business success and national economic development as the
railroads were in Samuel Morse's era."
These data highways connecting schools, colleges, universities,
researchers and industry could help create high-quality education in
the smallest schools, or start a society-wide revolution as important
as the invention of printing.
Conversely, if access to such data networks is restricted to only
those who already have money, power and information then the highways
of the mind might become nothing more than a classic case of economic
imperialism, taxation without communication, that one critic has
dubbed "toll roads between information castles."
Virtually all sides to the controversy agree that such networks are
essential. The future belongs to those who have ready access to huge
amounts of accurate information. The Japanese government and industry
are actively building such a network. The Japanese government
estimates that in 20 years 35 percent of Japan's gross national
product will be dependent on information that flows across this web.
In the United States there is only a vague consensus that this
high-bandwidth network is vital. In place of the unity of purpose
evident in Japan, there is internecine squabbling over who has the
right to do what/to where/to whom.
At issue are vastly different visions of the roles of government,
education and corporations. Four key questions dominate the debate:
1. Who will build the network? (Will the federal government create the
infrastructure or will it be left to private enterprise?)
2. Who will have access to network services? The debate here is
between those who would restrict the network's services to the
nation's research leaders and those who believe in access to anyone
with a modem .
3. Who will pay for all this? Everyone concedes that the federal
government will pay the lion's share of getting the network underway.
But should it do so by directly funding the infrastructure or by
paying the user fees of just the big research organizations working on
4. What kind of information will be allowed on the network? If the
federal government owns the network, the First Amendment is in place
and unpopular speech and art will be protected. If private enterprise
owns and runs the network, freedom of electronic speech is less clear.
Conceivably, a corporation owning the network could refuse to allow
discussion of controversial topics.
So far, two models or metaphor - "highways" and "railroads" have been
proposed to frame the debate. Both borrow from transportation examples
in U.S. history. Both, I believe, fall short of the mark. And we
suggest that a little tweaking of the two, the best solution for the
U.S. might be found in a kind of synthesis of these different visions.
The Interstate Highway Model
One vision, championed most visibly by U.S. Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.)
is to create a National Research and Education Network (NREN) that
will link the nation's top research, education, corporate and
governmental researchers. Gore's bill to create NREN died in the last
Congress but was re-introduced in January, 1991 with more coordinated
support among governmental agencies. The NREN proposal is just one
part of the government's five-year, $2 billion High Performance
Computing Program, which includes supercomputers, software, networking
Gore speaks of a "catalyst" role for the Federal Government akin to
the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. The
interstate transportation system was seen as a national resource and
national tax monies were used to finance the infrastructure, which
benefited all Americans through more far-flung, decentralized
distribution of goods and services.
The highway model - that government recognizes the communications
infrastructure as a vital national resource - is the norm throughout
Japan, Europe and most of the world.
The Railroad Model
IBM, MCI and other private firms prefer a different model: private
enterprise and quasi-monopolies such as America's railroads of the
The decision in the 19th century to give private transportation
monopolies to the railroads and let them determine the nation's
destiny created the 20th century landscape of America. Not
surprisingly towns and farms accessible to the railroads prospered and
grew. Areas ignored by the railroads withered and died.
Under the railroad model, the public and the government weren't
consulted; private interest, not national interest, determined who
got what. It was pure free market capitalism with no government
regulation, no direct governmental investment and led to some ugly
excesses. Yet at a time when federal budget deficits approach $300
billion per year the idea of letting private enterprise foot the whole
bill is powerfully attractive.
And that is essentially what IBM, MCI and Merit, an agency of the
state of Michigan have proposed. Last September they formed ANS
(Advanced Network Services), a not-for-profit joint venture that
proposes to build and maintain a private network. But the federal
government would need to guarantee that the research institutions
would have annual budgets sufficient to pay their ANS bills.
Why Decide Now?
The existing national research communication system is woefully
inadequate to today's needs and must be updated soon; this technical
obsolescence lends urgency to the need for finding answers to these
The question is how best to modernize and expand the DARPA/Internet
network . It the late 1960s, the Defense Department's Advanced
Research Projects Agency (ARPA) created a network of telephone lines
connected to large research institutions in government, education,
private enterprise and the military to allow researchers to exchange
Over the next decade and a half the number of researchers grew
significantly. As computers grew more powerful and easier to use,
researchers outside the computer sciences began to use remote
terminals and telecommunication networks to exchange messages and
share computing resources from their homes, offices, and laboratories.
Each research center supported dozens or hundreds of users, and each
local center was plugged into the overall network; thus, both the
number of nodes in the network and the number of users at each node
proliferated. The number of regional networks in government, business
and education skyrocketed, as did connections to ARPANet's main lines,
or "backbone". Most importantly, the type of data exchanged by
researchers changed dramatically. Where once simple electronic mail
messages were sufficient, collaborators across the nation now needed
to exchange high-density data like sounds, CAT scans, other graphic
images, even video images.
By 1987 the ARPANet suffered data gridlock and the last of its 1970s
state-of-the-art lines (56,000 digital "bits" per second - about
50,000 words per minute) were laid to rest. ARPANet's successor is
NSFNET, funded until 1993 by the National Science Foundation, another
government agency. NSFNET's original lines were so-called T-1 or 1.544
million bits per second - 28 times the capacity of ARPANet. These
lines lasted just three years, and are now being replaced by a newer
T-3 (45 million bits per second) backbone - another 28-fold increase.
No one expects it to last for long.
The growth of the so-called Internet - those machines connected to
the NSFNET backbone - has been phenomenal. In 1989, the number of
networks attached to the NSFNET/Internet increased from 346 to 997;
data traffic increased five-fold. The latest estimate, itself probably
wildly out-of-date, is that 100,000 to 200,000 main computers are
directly connected to NSFNET, with perhaps a total of two million
individuals able to exchange information.
For example, the WELL, Whole Earth's computer conferencing system, is
not connected directly to either the NSFNET backbone or the so-called
Internet of sites on the backbone. But the WELL's computer is linked
to Apple Computer's mainframes, and to Pacific Bell's computers and to
the University of California at Berkeley - all of them on the
Internet. So the WELL's 3,500 customers can send electronic mail to
millions of other computer users around the country and, via
connections between the Internet and other countries, all around the
NSFNET's phenomenal growth in 1989 was, evidently, just a prelude for
the data deluge that is now in full flood. Traffic more than doubled
between September 1989 and September 1990. It is projected to double
again this year. It won't take too long to exhaust even those T-3
lines that carry 800+ times the data of the pre-1987 lines.
That's where the NREN proposal comes in. As proposed by the Coalition
for the National Research and Education Network and championed by
Senator Gore, Congress would authorize the network and provide $400
million over five years to put it in place. The universities and
research centers would pay the additional costs for the local area
networks that would connect their scholars to the network.
When completed in 1995 the network would have a 3-gigabit backbone - 3
billion bits per second, a 66-fold increase over the current T-3
capacity, a 50,000-fold increase over the old ARPA lines. That's about
300 million times faster than the clattering state-of-the-art
teletypes I used at the Associated Press a quarter-century ago.
From CAT Scans to Instant Encyclopedias
What can you do with 3 billion bits per second? The NREN Coalition
likens it to sending 100 three-dimensional x-rays and CAT scans every
second for 100 cancer patients, or sending 1,000 satellite photographs
to researchers investigating agricultural productivity, environmental
pollution or weather prediction. Reduced to just words, it would be
100,000 typed pages per second, or as the Coalition dangles
tantalizingly before us, "making it possible to transmit the entire
Encyclopedia Brittanica in a second...."
Now before you begin salivating at the thought of every book, every
magazine article available instantaneously at your slightest whim,
here's the rub: as currently designed, NREN's 3-gigabit data lines
aren't coming to your house, or your kids' school, even your local
library. NREN will connect only the largest research universities and
consortia, at least one in every state. From there, lower-speed
regional networks would connect nearby institutions. At the bottom of
NREN's proposed three-tier system would be local campus networks.
There's no plan or provision for K-12 schools or local libraries in
the NREN proposal.
One doesn't need the vast capacity of NREN to exchange simple
electronic mail. There are many alternative, if slower, networks
available. Using super-sophisticated NREN for such mundane tasks might
be like trying to get a drink out of a fire hose. And it's problematic
whether local schools and libraries would be able to pay for the
equipment needed to exchange items much more complex than simple
electronic mail. There's the potential here for the creation of
information haves and information have-nots. As Apple Computer
librarian Steve Cisler puts it, "If this is going to be a data
superhighway, how would you like to have to go to a computer company,
military base, or university to find an onramp?"
Dave Hughes, a Colorado telecommunications pioneer, takes a more
cautious view of the slimmed-down NREN that Gore and others are trying
to push through Congress. An ex-Army colonel and former aide to
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Hughes believes that NREN's plan,
with local schools not even mentioned, could perpetuate educational
elitism, where the already-prosperous research universities get
additional taxpayer-paid subsidized service and the already-poor local
schools get short shrift.
Which doesn't mean that Dave Hughes doesn't want to see a high-speed
data network. To the contrary, he wants it to reach every corner of
America, terminating in at least each of the 16,000 local school
districts. Such as the 114 one-room school houses in Montana which he
and Frank Odasz of Western Montana College have managed to connect up,
after a fashion, through their Big Sky Telegraph system, and and from
there out to the rest of the world. And over which a theoretical
physicist from MIT has been able to teach a course in chaos theory
mathematics to students in these schools - which the physicist cannot
do through the Internet workstation on his MIT desk, Hughes says.
Hughes and Odasz already have created a grassroots online culture in
the wide-open spaces where physical isolation reinforces the lack of
ready access to national sources of information.
Hughes wants either to flatten NREN's three tiers of service into a
single tier, or have guarantees of affordable access and compatible
protocols between the three tiers to and from every
educational/political subdivision in America. From observing online
behavior nationally for the past 11 years, he thinks talent will find
its own level on the network, and that those with neither the talent
or motivation will be satisfied with local bulletin-boards and video
games. He believes all schools in the country should have the right of
access under the law, including either affordable rates, or
appropriate subsidies down to the local level.
"The implicit assumptions behind the NREN proposal," Hughes says, "are
that it will only link large research (which also may be 'educational'
in the sense of higher education) institutions. As currently conceived
NREN will NOT extend to the 16,000 K-12 school districts in America,
much less foster the vision of a nation of people learning all their
lives by mixing institutional (edifice-centered) education and
training, and learning, formally and informally, from home, library,
place of business or study.
"So the metaphor of the need for 'Highways of the Mind' across this
land is very deceptive. It really could turn out to mean 'Super Toll
Roads between Castles.' That is not my vision of a Network Nation."
The Network Nation
What would a real Network Nation be like? Conservative theorist/author
George Gilder, like Hughes, foresees a renaissance in education caused
by the "telecomputer": the merger of fiber optic telephone service to
the home and new ultra-powerful multimedia computers.
"The telecomputer could revitalize public education by bringing the
best teachers in the country to classrooms everywhere," Gilder says.
"More important, the telecomputer could encourage competition because
it could make home schooling both feasible and attractive. To learn
social skills, neighborhood children could gather in micro-schools run
by parents, churches or other local institutions. The competition of
home schooling would either destroy the public school system or force
it to become competitive with rival systems..."
High-speed data communications to the home might also revolutionize
where and how we live. Data communications could allow rural
tele-commuting, ending two centuries of "brain drain" from the
countryside to the cities.
Gilder says, "Every morning millions of commuters across America sit
in cars inching their way toward cluttered, polluted and crime-ridden
cities," he says.
"Or they sit in dilapidated trains rattling toward office towers that
survive as business centers chiefly because of their superior access
to the global network of computers and telecommunications. With
telecomputers in every home attached to global fiber network, why
would anyone commute? People would be able to see the boss life-size
in high-definition video and meet with him as easily at home as at the
office. They would be able to reach with equal immediacy the head of
the foreign subsidiary or the marketing chief across the country. They
would be able to send and receive documents almost instantly from
Who Pays the Bill?
Whether it's the $400 million Gore's NREN bill calls for or the
untold billions required for fiber optics to the home, high-speed data
communications will cost a bundle and the major political battle is
over who will pay.
For Gilder and for many of us who hope to benefit from fiber-to-the
home, the answer is clear: let the local telephone companies install
fiber to every home, amortize the cost and add it to our monthly
To consumer groups and many state public utilities commissions that
reeks of reverse Robin Hood-ism: stealing from the poor, retired and
elderly who may never be able to utilize the capabilities of the new
system in order to subsidize the corporations, universities and a
well-educated few. Indeed, that's already underway. Much of the U.S.
telephone system, especially in the central cities and along corporate
"data corridors" has already been converted to fiber optic service and
the costs rolled into the local telephone rate.
Another option: last September IBM and MCI, who already operate NSFNET
under contract, proposed to build a "private Internet" backbone that
would require less governmental funding, but would involve user fees.
Advanced Network Services, the IBM/MCI non-profit joint venture, would
build and operate the network.
The benefit, as IBM exec Allan H. Weis, president/chief executive
officer of ANS puts it, is ""Because we are broadening the community
of those using the network, the fixed costs of national networking
will be more widely distributed. This will free up funds which could
then be allocated to assist the neediest organizations to connect to
the national network, as well as to continue to support and enable the
national network to remain in the vanguard of new technology."
That doesn't sit well with Dave Hughes. "With this Administration, the
budget crunch, and general ignorance of the implications, I'm afraid
that the decision makers - including Congress - will welcome 'private
enterprise' with open arms. And overlook such minor details as 'equal
access.' No, it will be 'if you got the bucks you can buy it.' Kiss
off the idea that all K-12 schools will have 'educational' access."
Mitch Kapor, the co-founder of Lotus Computing and the president of
the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also believes that universal
access should be a central tenet of any national network policy.
"Whatever infrastructure we create," Kapor says, "should incorporate a
notion of 'universal digital service', much as AT&T pioneered, and
which later became national policy, with respect to voice telephony in
the early 20th century. Everyone should be able to connect to the
Hughes and Kapor approach the NREN controversy from substantially
different perspectives. Hughes is suspicious of turning the nation's
infrastructure over to the agendas of private enterprise.
As Hughes terms it, "I am concerned about the U.S. mind-set which,
without thinking, says that the 'private sector' should provide
telecommunications in the U.S. simply because that is the way it
always has been, while in a couple other key areas - sewage, highways,
and education - that is not the case.
"If we believe so mightily that our national future is very much
wrapped up in computing and telecommunications - and that especially
'research and education' are going to have to be improved mightily for
us to compete - then we ought to be thinking a lot more carefully than
we are now about which portion of telecommunications should be
government provided/subsidized/regulated and which portion pure
Kapor, one of the country's most respected entrepreneurs, suggests
that one way to satisfy both Big Scientists and Universalists is to
have, in effect, two networks, achieved by "overlaying"
lower-bandwidth networks onto an NREN-like backbone.
"These high-end and low-end visions of the NREN are strikingly
different. There is no assurance that one size network fits all. Some
important public policy choices will therefore be made, one way or the
other," he says.
While he lauds the IBM/MCI/ANS group for its donations of millions of
dollars to NSFNET computing, Kapor is concerned that ANS policies may
become, by default, national polices concerning telecommunications
without the benefit of public debate. ANS, he says, is already
establishing policies for measuring network traffic, billing and
accounting, and setting access charges for new information
entrepreneurs, all without the normal hearing and rule-setting process
required of public utilities.
"What ANS does in the way of setting up commercial access to the
national information infrastructure may well become, in effect,
national policy," Kapor says. "But there is no guarantee of public
"We are dependent on the continued good will of ANS in setting its
policies. We don't know, for instance, whether the technology for
counting traffic on the net that ANS develops will be as enabling for
would-be information entrepreneurs as it will for big corporate
information providers. Without an open public process for getting
input in the development of the net, the resulting choices are less
likely to be in the public interest."
Kapor also sees that a purely private enterprise such as ANS may not
be fully in consonance with the goals of Electronic Frontier
Foundation's goals, including First Amendment guarantees for
electronic speech and guaranteed access to communications services at
EFF's recent newsletter noted that Prodigy, a national computer
communications system half owned by IBM, has been embroiled in
disputes because of its policy of reading and censoring postings made
to Prodigy's public forums.
"I believe it's important to establish the legal principle that
businesses which offer a network service which is principally that of
a conduit - moving bits from here to there - may not restrict the
content of the information they carry. The ability to restrict
content, whether conducted by the government in the form of
censorship, or by a private carrier for whatever reason, is not
conducive to the free and open flow of information," he says.
So What' the Answer?
Now let's play Chinese menu, taking a few items from column A (Gore's
NREN/Big Scientists bill) and column B (the Universalists approach).
A workable national network might include the following features:
=> Built and managed by private enterprise
=> Federal start-up subsidies for colleges, universities, libraries
=> First Amendment free speech guarantees
=> Guaranteed interconnection to other data services offered by
telephone companies and other locally regulated businesses
=> Guaranteed universal digital access for everyone who wants to
=> Fair rates and policies subject to regulatory review
In short, we'd have a regulated public utility: precisely the system
that the U.S. used over the past century to develop the best - and
cheapest - public telephone system in the world.
The problem, as usual, is in how one defines the purpose of the
national network. Laura Breeden, a network group manager at Bolt
Beranek and Newman (a private research and development company that
was one of the original ARPAnet contractors), frames the issues this
"If you think of data networking as a public utility, then it seems
important to regulate it in some of the same ways that other utilities
are regulated, i.e. to make sure that basic services are provided to
everyone and not withdrawn unreasonably.
"If you think of it as a strategic resource, important for insuring
U.S.competitiveness and technological progress, then you put it where
it can do the most good strategically .
"If you believe that it is important to education generally, then you
put it at as many schools as possible.
"If you think data networking is some of all of these, you have to
balance the trade-offs among them."
The National Network is a complex issue. It's safe to say only a
handful of representatives understand the issue in depth. A letter
from you to your elected representatives asking for reasonable rates,
guaranteed free speech rights and access for local schools, libraries
and homes might make a lot of difference.
For more information concerning NREN, consult the following sources:
The WELL, Whole Earth's computer conferencing system, has extensive
coverage of NREN/Internet issues the Info, Telecommunications and
Electronic Frontier Foundation conferences. Call 415/332-4335 (voice)
or 415/332-6106 (modem) for more information on how to join the WELL.
On the WELL you will find: Dave Hughes (dave at well.sf.ca.us), Steve
Cisler (sac at well.sf.ca.us), Tom Valovic (tvacorn at well.sf.ca.us), Mitch
Kapor (mkapor at well.sf.ca.us), and Roger Karraker (roger at well.sf.ca.us)
Mike Nelson, Senate Commerce Committee, U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC
Sen. Albert Gore, U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510 (Gore's office, or
the Senate Commerce Committee, can send you a copy of Gore's article,
"Networking the Future," published in the July 15, 1990 Outlook
section of the Washington Post .
Coalition for the National Research and Education Network: Mike
Roberts, Vice President/Networking, EDUCOM, 1112 16th Street NW, #600,
Washington, DC 20036; roberts at educom.edu
Research & Education Networking , a commercial publication devoted to
developments related to NREN, is published nine times a year. Volume
I, Number 1 is eight pages long. Institutional rate is $59 annually;
personal rate is $39. Available from Meckler, 11 Ferry Lane West,
Westport, CT 06880; 203/226-6967; Fax 203/454-5840
This version of this document was prepared by Matisse Enzer,
matisse at well.sf.ca.us; 415/647-4324 This version was prepared by
taking the ASCII version of Roger Karraker's original submittal to
Whole Earth Review and manually bringing it into line with the
published version. Any errors in that process are the sole
responsibility of myself, Matisse Enzer.
More information about the Bioforum