The better, faster Internet you can't use.

Inside the Internet.
June 7 2005 1:45 PM

Internet2

It's better, it's faster. You can't use it.

Illustration by Mark Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

There's nothing obviously different or magical about Alan Crosswell's computer. The dirty, beige machine sits idle in a nondescript office at Columbia University, where Crosswell directs the school's computer network. Then he lets it loose. In just 2 minutes and 41 seconds, it pulls down more than 500 megabytes of Linux code from servers at Duke University, a task that would normally take hours. Next, Crosswell shows me a violin master class held via videoconference. The DVD-like resolution creates an immediacy that you don't get with choppy streaming video, and the better-than-CD audio allows both the teacher in Canada and the student in New York to hear every nuance.

How are these incredible feats of data transmission possible? Because Columbia has access to the other, better Internet—Internet2.

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Yes, there is another Internet. The term "Internet" simply refers to a network of computers. The one that most of us use is Internet1, or the "commodity Internet." Internet2 was created nearly a decade ago by academics at research universities as a noncommercial prototype—something like what the Internet was back when just a few university researchers were logged on to ARPANET.

Like the commodity Internet, Internet2 comprises servers, routers, switches, and computers that are all connected together. Routers decide which way to send information, and servers handle Web site requests and store information for retrieval. What makes Internet2 so different is that it has many fewer users and much faster connections.

While Internet1 is open to pretty much anyone with a computer, access to Internet2 is limited to a select few, and its backbone is made up entirely of large-capacity fiber-optic cables. Rather than Internet1, which is cobbled together out of old telephone lines, Internet2 was built for speed—the roads are all wide and smooth, like your own private autobahn. Internet2 moves data at 10 gigabits per second and more, compared with the 4 or so megabits you'll get using a cable modem. As a result, Internet2 moves data 100 to 1,000 times faster than the old-fashioned Internet.

More than 200 universities, 70 private companies, 45 government agencies, and 45 international organizations log on to Internet2 every day. Your work computer might be linked to Internet2 already—you can use this Java applet to find out. There are no secret Web addresses or special browsers required to log on, no buttons saying, "Click here for Internet2." Organizations that want to join up must demonstrate a research-related purpose, pay dues, and meet minimum technical requirements so they don't slow down the rest of the Internet2 empire.

When you set up a super-fast Internet connection on a college campus, not everyone is going to use it for research. In the last two months, the RIAA has announced two separate groups of lawsuits against students who allegedly shared music using an Internet2-specific file-sharing site called i2hub.com. Wire reports on the lawsuits claim that an Internet2 connection allows you to download "a DVD-quality copy of the popular movie The Matrix in 30 seconds." I didn't get a chance to try any field tests. When I tried to persuade Columbia's Crosswell to let me download a couple of movies for my personal collection, he politely declined.

So, will Internet2 be the downfall of the music and film industries? Probably not. Those 30-second download speeds you're reading about are theoretical. Some universities put caps on how much data individual users can transfer, or how fast they can send and receive data on certain computers. Plus, the hardware in most home computers—the network cards, for example—isn't fast enough to keep up with Internet2 speeds.

The RIAA isn't completely safe, though. Not too far in the future, cable companies will probably sell Internet2-like download speeds to home users. However, most people won't ever use Internet2 itself.

Internet2 was never designed to replace the Internet most of us are using now. It's more like a beach or a restaurant—great when not too many people know about it, frustrating when everybody and his mother starts to show up. Internet2's promoters like to compare it to early research networks that fostered the creation of canonical apps like the World Wide Web and e-mail. So, even if you never use Internet2 to download moviesat hyperspeed, you still might benefit from the research. Let's just hope they let us use e-mail2.

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