Five years ago, 34 people emerged from the basement of the O'Hare Hilton in Chicago and let the sun shine in on a bright new idea. That was in 1996. The next year President Clinton weighed in on a fledgling fantasy with a promise of support for "Internet II," the second generation of the tool that's sweeping the world like a technological tornado. If you're wondering what ever became of that digital dream -- it's alive and well, online on 150 U.S. college campuses.
There are a couple of key technological differences between I-2 and what Peebles calls "the commodity Internet" which is what the world is using now. First of all I-2 uses a much broader bandwidth, which means it has a ton more power to move and share information. Secondly, it's routed through more than 30 regional hubs, called gigapops. "So if a school in Gary, Indiana wants to talk to a school in Elk Hart, Indiana it shouldn't have to go through Chicago," explains Peebles.
"We have a bunch of those gigapops all around the country, probably about 30 at the moment, large sophisticated presences." They're high-tech traffic cops for fiber optic lines and they allow schools to network with neighbors to share tons of data in a hurry. Member schools can still access information from all of their I-2 peers in the whole network. Things happen about one thousand times faster than a modem connection on the first Internet.
Here's an application that's already in use. Internet II gives people in five Midwestern and southern colleges the power to see full motion video images from a telescope in Arizona and steer it around the cosmos at the same time. Peebles envisions more. "Virtual laboratories running experiments in real-time," even sharing medical resources like surgical training or x-ray images instantly.
Right about now you may be wondering where you can sign up... The truth is, most people can't. I-2 is only currently available to institutions of higher learning, and organizers don't see that changing any time soon. The whole idea is to take down roadblocks from the first Internet, like heavy traffic and slow interfaces, and speed things up for college researchers sharing information. The great news for students is that if they go to an I-2-connected school, they'll probably get free access and all the benefits that come with the new network.
This means instant email, supercharged Web navigation, and things you just can't get right now. "High resolution video used in distance education," for example, says David Shealy, who heads up the Internet II program at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. UAB is also wired to I-2, and Shealy sees a lot of new uses coming down this high-performance pipeline. "Medicine is one discipline which is using I-2. However, there are many more... Music, art, drama, sciences."
Here's another illustration. "Students are actually using the Internet to learn about networking," explains Greg Wood Director of the Internet II Project, a group of people from schools, government and corporate sponsors.
"There is a computer science networking instructor at the University of Wisconsin, which is an I-2 institution, that is collaborative teaching a course at a college in Japan on computer networking. The students in Wisconsin were able to hear an expert on networking who just happened to be in Japan and they weren't constrained by being in Wisconsin," says Wood.
Alabama's Shealy points out another big benefit. "When students have access to leading edge technology as part of their educational experiences then I believe they will have more to offer employers after they leave the university." Peebles expects I-2 to deliver new technology and tools to students again and again over the next couple of years. "The whole point is we don't want them to notice anything but improvement. Students will see more tools, not just faster service."
"They made a generous donation but it's a two-way street," says Wood, from the I-2 Project. "The corporate sponsors expect that what the universities are doing now, we'll be doing in five years or so. They'll be able to glimpse what the corporate world will look like down the road."
Microsoft officers say they hope to bring things like high quality on demand video and CD quality sound to many more Internet users. That's what drove the company to set up its own high-speed connection to the new college network. What they learn trickles over to Internet one, and over the next three years people online will see more speed and more services sprouting from I-2.
Uncle Sam has the same catbird seat, donating $350,000 grants to more than 100 schools. Government analysts expect to share the return on the investment by learning powerful new ways to share information.
There are limits to life online, even with I-2. "I'm not sure I want to put my heart surgery in the hands of a doctor in Toronto when I'm in Indianapolis" says Peebles. But Internet II has a pulse and it's getting stronger every day