European brake on UK fast-link

BRITAIN'S internationally envied information superhighway for research, the SuperJanet network, is facing obstacles in Europe that threaten to undermine its growth and hamper the country's future at the leading edge of the information revolution.

More than 50 universities and research establishments in Britain are linked by the world-class fibre-optic network, provided by BT at a cost to the taxpayer of pounds 18m. The network can send colour images, sound and data faster than any comparable system abroad. Besides being a high-tech toy that allows tens of thousands of British students to surf for free the on the World Wide Web, SuperJanet is a route by which UK academia can export its knowledge: between 25 and 60 per cent of its traffic is bound for overseas.

But as that traffic hits the other side of the Channel, it slows right down. SuperJanet moves data around Britain at 145 megabits per second; networks linking Continental universities typically manage two megabits per second. "It is we who have the equivalent of the TGV and the rest of Europe puts up with Network SouthEast when it comes to the information superhighway," commented Malcolm Read, who oversees the development of SuperJanet.

The problem it is facing is not that there is a shortage of fibre-optic links around Europe, but a flat refusal by the state-owned telephone companies in Europe to provide access for a reasonable fee. Commercial data carriers such as EUnet and Ebone are also being hampered by the exorbitant rates being asked by the telephone monopolies.

"The connection between Dover and Calais costs 20 times what it costs to send data from London to Edinburgh," said Professor Alistair Chalmers, a leading British expert on computer communications. If two continental universities want to set up a modest 2 megabits-per-second link, they will be charged several hundred thousands of pounds per connection. Their US counterparts would pay pounds 90,000 for a link more than 20 times as powerful. British links are regarded as cheap too, although the costing system makes a comparison difficult.

EU countries have agreed to deregulate their telecommunications industries by 1998. But British managers feel some state-owned telecom companies are likely to honour this more in the breach than the observance.

SuperJanet was developed by the UK Education and Research Networking Association, a quango based at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, in collaboration with the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, Manchester Imperial College and University College, London. SuperJanet has vastly increased access to British research materials while providing the country's universities and research establishments with a distinct advantage in the provision of information services.

University and company researchers are carrying out advanced research on three dimensional images and SuperJanet is being used to provide video links to teach surgery in six different universities.