ERCIM News No.31 - October 1997

TEN-34 and the Commercial Realities of the Next Generation Research Internet

by Dai Davies

The TEN-34 network, the high speed pan-European backbone inter-connecting European national university networks, was launched in May 1997. The lessons learned from implementing TEN-34 and current developments in the US set important trends for the future of European and global research networking.

The origins of the Internet lie in the research community. Unlike most telecommunications development which has derived from the slow technical co-operation of monopolists, the Internet has demonstrated that it is possible to be technically innovative at a pace associated with the computer industry. In its short life, the Internet has had two major advantages over traditional telecommunications services. It has never had to face economic reality in the sense that the development has been paid by government funding and it has never had to provide quality services. Now, with huge growth, continuing demand, and increasing complaints about quality, the issue of cost cannot be ignored. This article considers the real cost of building the next generation research Internet in Europe and addresses the impact this will have on who will pay for it and how.

There is much talk of telecommuni-cations in general and bit transport in particular becoming significantly cheaper as liberalisation starts to create a competitive market in Europe. This may in the long term lead to dramatic reductions in price but there are two simple facts which illustrate why it does not solve the funding problem for research networks. The cost of the current generation network, TEN-34, is very significant. This network was built at a time of monopoly international provision in most of Europe. The annual cost of TEN-34 is roughly 40 MECU per year. Secondly, the network only provides a total of 255 Mbps of access capacity. The fastest national university network access to TEN-34 is a factor of four slower than the access capacity of a number of European institutions to their own University networks. Thus TEN-34 is undersized for a true pan-European network supporting multi-media applications. There will have to be price reductions of the order of several hundred percent to accommodate the growth in traffic and remain within current budgets.

The growth of Internet technology and its increasing importance as a mainstream telecommunications technology will lead to a much more commercial approach to the provision of Internet services. The research community has to be very careful to ensure that a research network, particularly an international research network, remains at the forefront of available technology. Interchange with the commercial world is indeed necessary for research but this must not be allowed to dilute the focus of research networking. Research networking is about exploiting technology in advance of that which the marketplace can offer. Research networks must play the vital role in acting as the bridge between development and the market place. This vital role precludes a simple customer/supplier relationship for service. There are two elements needed to fulfil this role: a service network in advance of the market place complemented by a test facility where technology can be tested in a controlled networking environment.

Europe has lagged behind the USA in terms of telecommunications technology. Liberalisation gives Europe the opportunity to close the gap. It is important that European research networkers emulate the lessons learned by their US counterparts by contributing to the advance of technology, but also see the European dimension and benefit of such a contribution. A European superhighway based on European fibre-optics but US technology is not an achievement for European industrial policy.

This reality will benefit the European research community. Research is a global activity and requires global cooperation. The commercialisation of the US research Internet was a mistake that Europe never made but it was a mistake that Europe is still helping to pay for. Today Europe pays over 90 percent of the cost of the more than 280 Mbps of connectivity that connect European researchers to their North American counterparts even though the benefit is balanced. Internet 2 is a grass roots US initiative that will move the US research Internet away from the commodity Internet that has failed to deliver quality services at acceptable prices A more balanced approach to research networking on both sides of the Atlantic should make it much easier to resolve this financial imbalance.

There is a second important challenge for the next generation of European research network. This is to provide predictable and acceptable quality of service to its users. The Internet has never taken quality of service seriously. This does not matter too much for electronic mail or file transfer; even WWW traffic can tolerate variable quality of service. There is a significant difference when it comes to supporting real time multi-media applications. These need predictable and appropriate network quality if they are to be acceptable to the average user.

The telecommunication operators learned this decades ago when it came to providing voice services, the original mass market real time services. Even today the bandwidth of voice services dwarfs the Internet. If researchers are to act as the catalyst for the next generation of multi-media services, the underlying network must support reliable Quality of Service for those applications that require it. Differentiated quality of service requires that those who need it pay for it otherwise there is no incentive to differentiate. The research Internet has a flat tariff structure which does not charge by usage. The commercial reality of differentiated quality of service is that the users of those applications which require higher network quality must pay for this quality. Either the flat 'usage independent' tariff structure will not survive or services will continue be provided on the basis of rationing. This is the technical and commercial challenge for the next generation Research Internet.

For further information, see TEN-34 home page: http://www.dante.net/ten-34

Please contact:
Dai Davies - DANTE
Tel: +44 1223 302992
E-mail: Dai.Davies@dante.org.uk

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