The Next Generation Internet: Government Policy and the Future of the Net

Article excerpt

Last October, in a speech on research and technology policy delivered at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, President Clinton announced a new federal research and development initiative he said would create a Next Generation Internet (NGI). Although it lacked in specifics (like most such presidential announcements), the speech reflected a renewed federal concern with the development of the Internet.

Over the last several years, federal Internet policy has been based on the assumption that the Net had become a viable commercial enterprise whose growth would be mainly driven by private investments in infrastructure and content. National Science Foundation subsidies, which had stimulated the growth of the Internet when it was primarily a network that supported research and education, had been eliminated. Only long-term basic research in networking and support for the vBNS (very-high-speed Backbone Network Service), an experimental networking testbed, remained.

Recently, problems and concerns about the growth and viability of the Internet have moved some to suggest a renewed effort by the federal government to help move it forward. The rapid growth in Internet use and the resulting congestion have created frustration and dissatisfaction among users, particularly those using complex services that demand higher bandwidth.

Many proposed new applications would place technological demands on networking technology that it was not designed to provide. In some sense, the network is a victim of its own success. Would-be users and service providers are beginning to dream about services that could be offered with an improved Internet, such as multicasting of multimedia and interactive educational programming. An advanced network could provide full-immersion virtual meeting places for users from remote areas to gather together to collaborate on tasks (or just visit). Large, distributed databases could be linked and searched rapidly and efficiently.

An Internet of the future must be designed to accommodate scaleable growth into a universal medium, and it must support a vast range of new applications, only a few of which we can today imagine. At the same time, it must work smoothly with the existing infrastructure in which so many providers and users have already invested.

Clearly, the federal role would be more limited and partial this time than it was when the Defense Department developed the first version of ARPAnet or when NSF started NSFnet. The Internet has moved too far and too fast into widespread private-sector use for the government to replay that scenario. Instead, it will need to complement investments being made by information service providers, computer and communication firms, and users.

Of course, service providers experiencing congestion are investing heavily in new hardware and improved technology lest they go out of business; but users are also making investments. One such effort is the Internet 2 project, a private endeavor of approximately 100 research universities (AL, Apr., p. 84). Internet 2 is intended to be a closed network serving a research community from the participating campuses and laboratories but interconnected with the regular Internet.

Despite these private efforts, the federal role will be crucial. Government has important levers that it can pull more easily than private interests, particularly in research and development. Private-sector investments are by necessity focused on the short-term technological improvements needed to sustain service to a growing user base. Government can work with a longer horizon in mind.

Furthermore, government agencies such as NASA, the Defense Department, and NSF have applications that require them to operate at the leading edge of information technology, and they continue to invest in the development of those applications. A multiagency program could, in theory, take advantage of such focused agency programs. This was apparently the thinking behind last October's announcement, although it was then left to the science and technology policy experts in the White House and federal agencies to make the proposal concrete. …