European Research Networking moving to a Next Phase
by Karel Vietsch
These are exciting times for research networking in Europe and world-wide. Several years ago many predicted that general commercial service providers would get into the business of providing researchers with advanced networking facilities; dedicated research networks were expected to disappear. This has not happened. To the contrary, there is a growing recognition of the fundamental differences between the general-purpose Commodity Internet on the one hand, and the High-Performance Internet that satisfies the needs of researchers on the other.
In the United States, the Internet 2 and Next-Generation Internet initiatives address the need for a High-Performance Internet. This will lead to a subsequent phase in the historic development of research networking. Europe must enter this next phase by setting up a European counterpart to the American initiatives. Concrete plans for the implementation of such a European initiative still have to be developed. But the current proposals for the European Union's Fifth Framework Programme have raised hopes that adequate funding will become available, both at the European and national levels. It is a major political breakthrough that in these proposals the support of the research infrastructure, and in particular an advanced networking infrastructure, is recognised as a responsibility of the European Union, and thereby as a responsibility of national governments. Over the past year and together with other players, TERENA, the European association of research networks, has contributed to the development of the policies and plans for this part of the Fifth Framework Programme. For the next years TERENA expects to be making a substantial contribution to the development and co-ordination of the implementation plans and their execution.
Since the mid 1990's companies and individuals have been gaining access to the Internet in large numbers. Commercial companies have entered the market to provide connectivity and information services to these new users. To a large extent these access and information services are based on technologies and methodologies that were developed in the research networking environment during the past ten years. At the same time this important development does little to fulfil the present needs of network users in research establishments and universities. The services they need and which require high-bandwidth network access are not provided by Internet Service Providers, Public Network Operators or other companies. Research networks dedicated organisations which since the mid 1980's have been established in all countries in Europe remain indispensable to provide to the research community the more advanced services that it needs. For the research community networking is by no means a commodity yet.
This explains why the policies adopted in the United States a few years ago to transfer the provision of research networking services to the commercial sector have not been successful. As a consequence the need arose for the Internet 2 initiative, which is supported both by universities and research institutes in the United States and by the federal government, and which aims to set up once again a dedicated network infrastructure for the research community. This brings not only a change in organisation and funding but also the introduction of new high-capacity connections, new networking technologies and new services (eg real-time interactive multimedia services). For Europe to continue to play its role in world-wide scientific collaboration and competition it is essential that a similar infrastructure is designed, organised, funded and implemented. This can only be done if action is taken at two levels. On the one hand the research networking organisations in Europe have to work together to develop technical and organisational plans for the deployment and management of the new infrastructure and services. TERENA, the association formed by these networks to represent their interests, and DANTE Ltd., the company set up as their operational arm to organise and manage pan-European networking services, are their instruments to organise this collaboration. On the other hand it is the responsibility of national governments and their agencies and of the European Union to ensure that adequate funds for the implementation of these plans will become available.
The research networking organisations in Europe are plagued by many severe short-term problems. In many parts of Central and Eastern Europe the limitations of the underlying telecommunications infrastructure continue to pose restrictions on the development of research networking. At the same time those networking organisations which are ready to introduce more advanced and high-capacity services find themselves limited by financial constraints. The prices that telecommunications operators charge for international high-speed connections are extremely high, not related to real costs and to a large extent beyond the financial means of the research community. Faced with these severe current problems it has been difficult for the research network operators to plan ahead for the implementation of the next-generation network technology and services, especially while it was uncertain whether the substantial financial resources required for such plans would become available.
Therefore over the past twelve months efforts have concentrated on securing future funding. The fact that the plans for the European Union's Fifth Framework Programme were scheduled to be finalised in this same period helped to focus attention. Good collaboration developed between the European Commission staff, representatives of national governments (who are active both in committees within the context of the European Union and in the wider European Networking Policy Group (ENPG) which was established by the Research Ministers of a number of EU and non-EU countries), representatives of the research community in Europe (including ERCIM) and the European research networking organisations (both individually and through TERENA and DANTE). The exchange of thoughts between all these people contributed much to the official Proposal on the Fifth Framework Programme which was published by the European Commission in April 1997 and the subsequent discussion papers published by the Commission services. The final decisions on the Framework Programme may not be taken by the European Parliament and the Research Council before the end of this year, but the prospects for a substantial European action to match the initiatives in North-America look good.
This means that drafting the implementation plans can start now. Although also in this phase much support will be needed from the network users community and from the funders, clearly the lead should now be taken by the operational organisations in the field: the national research networks, TERENA and DANTE. During the past months a consensus has grown between the funders and the operators as to the organisational framework for these plans: the action will have a long-term planning horizon and will be based on 4-year plans (to be updated annually) which will provide the basis for the funding decisions. With the current spirit and will for co-operation between all parties concerned, European research networking may be entering the road to a prosperous future.
Karel Vietsch - TERENA
Tel: +31 20 6391131