Innovation: US heads down the data superhighway

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The Independent Online
THE EASY part of the US government's plan to create an information superhighway is installing the high-capacity networks. The hard part is getting the many different networks - operated by various companies and linking a vast range of equipment - to work together in a coherent way.

Earlier this month, a group of 17 leading US companies, universities and government agencies began the first large- scale test of co-ordinating different networks technically and administratively.

The National Information Infrastructure Testbed includes AT&T and Sprint, the communications companies, and the computer companies Hewlett- Packard, Digital Equipment and Sun Micro Systems.

It aims to build and test information superhighways in real business applications and to 'assess the pragmatic and technical issues' involved in creating and operating a national information infrastructure.

President Clinton's vision of the superhighway is to create a driving force for the economy by merging the vast US communications and data networks into a single massive network, linking - and equally accessible to - homes, businesses and institutions.

The term 'information superhighway' deliberately refers back to the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, which was a force for economic development. 'In a sense, we already have the information highway, or at least the technology to build it,' says Bill Murphy, chairman of the consortium's steering committee. 'But now we need cars, ramps on and off the highway, signposts, speed limits, motels and restaurants along the way.'

The group aims to develop standards for transmission and switching technologies, so that different communications technologies can co-exist on the network.

AT&T says the test will look for effective ways of allowing many different types of traffic in a network, from voice to video games, while avoiding congestion and deterioration in quality.

The first test organised by the consortium will link nine research institutions around the country working on tropical deforestation and ocean pollution, in the Earth Data System.

The software, databases and computers of all the participating institutions will be available on each scientist's personal computer, allowing researchers to collaborate across the miles as if they were sitting side by side.

At a later stage, the consortium will link the Earth Data System to remote sensing equipment in the Pacific Ocean and in equatorial forests, to enable scientists to program the instruments remotely to perform a variety of tasks.

The second test planned by the consortium will be in the healthcare field, involving the long-distance diagnosis of difficult cases by linking doctors together.

This test will have to prove the security of the network - a great deal of information will be valuable, highly confidential, or covered by copyright - such as financial records, medical records and proprietary research.

The members of the consortium are financing the test projects.

They hope that once technical problems are ironed out and they can demonstrate the system's commercial viability, new information industries will appear.

(Photograph omitted)