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Perambulating on the Information Superhighway

By Irving A. Lerch, Director, International Scientific Affairs

Thirty-two years ago, I landed at Orly Airport outside Paris aboard a military air transport piston-engine plane after a flight somewhat longer than that endured by Lindbergh three decades earlier. Today, I visit Paris almost daily thanks to the Internet. In fact most of us define our sense of community by the ever expanding filigree of electronic connections which binds us.

But physicists are a minority presence on the Internet. Here are some interesting statistics from the former Executive Director of the Internet Society, A.M. Rutkowski: of the more than 132,000 registered domain addresses in the US, about 120,000 are for industry (.com), fewer than 2,000 are for universities (.edu), over 6,000 cover the non-profits and other organizations (.org) and less than 400 are home to all government agencies and labs (.gov). The Internet is by and large a commercial enterprise.

This may come as a shock to those of us who grew up believing that first the ARPAnet (1969) and finally the Internet were our private playground. And if we're not careful, the bigger and rougher kids will kick us off the slides and see-saws. Here are some more statistics from Vint Cerf, famous Internet Guru and former President of the Internet Society: in the years between 1983 and 1995, the number of host computers internationally increased from 200 to 5 million with 7 million hosts registered as of the end of last year. Fully 100 countries connect more than 23 million users and we can now send e-mail to 154 countries over 60,000 networks (half of which are in the US). In fact, if the number of users continues to increase at current rates, by the year 2001 there may be almost as many users of the Internet as there are human beings on the planet!

As change fluxes and percolates around us, we have increasingly come to rely on this jumble of networks to transact our professional business (notice that the phone doesn't ring as often as several years ago?), lay plans to publish our journals electronically, prepare remote-control experiments and distributed international collaborations, publish and revise abstracts and pre-prints in cyberspace-all the while assuming that access will remain universally cheap, reliable and stable.

We are heading for trouble. In Russia, Mozambique, China, Poland and a smattering of other countries, governments and postal-telegraph-telephone (PTT) authorities are using the commercialization of the networks to finance infrastructure and operations. Those who can pay will play. This puts the academic and research communities at an obvious disadvantage.

At its meeting in January of last year, the UNESCO Physics Action Council Working Group on Telecommunications Networks for Science (WG2) recommended that the Director General issue an appeal to governments to provide subsidized access for the academic and research communities in all countries. It is a theme which was repeated at WG2/APS workshops held in Tokyo in September, 1995, St. Petersburg, Russia, February 5 and 6 of this year, and in Paris on February 19, as part of an ICSU/UNESCO Expert Conference on Electronic Publishing in Science.

In Russia unlike the US, early attempts to develop Internet connectivity fell to a commercial organization, RELCOM, which did not differentiate among users. To provide some academic and research access, the government provided funds to a consortium of clients, RELARN, which was made up of many of those who founded and direct RELCOM. The obvious conflict infuriated international organizations which had sought to help the country's non-commercial communities achieve access, such as the Soros International Science Foundation, Open Society Fund and the United Nations Development Fund. As of now, an uneasy accommodation has been reached between these and many other parties. This is only ameliorated by bilateral arrangements providing access for some institutions such as Moscow's Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics and several others (St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk chief among the non-Moscow sites).

In China; restrictive telecommunications laws, fragmented and competing authorities, bilateral agreements and an imbalance in the geographical communications infrastructure, have all conspired to restrict access. Initial connection to the Internet arose as a 1993 bilateral agreement between SLAC and the Beijing Institute for High-Energy Physics. A single 64 KB satellite link was shared with some other institutes and universities via dial-up access. By the time of the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Chinese and American Physical Societies in October, 1994, access had been improved by shortening the IHEP-SLAC link to IHEP-KEK in Japan. In addition, the State Education Commission instituted an ambitious program to connect universities (CERnet) and the Chinese Academy organized CASnet. A central communications facility, funded in part by the World Bank, was given authority to coordinate these programs but the entire Chinese effort was burdened by intergovernmental competition and an unrealistic policy favoring commercial access and priorities. Thus, many users who can only make connection via telephone and other commercial services, must pay almost punitive fees for every byte transmitted and received.

In Mozambique, until recently national law forbade non-government providers from connecting clients. It is still not clear whether private ownership of modems is permissible!

Closer to home in the U.S., no one can reliably portend what will happen as the current traffic increases from 1,000 billion bytes per month to one million times this level by the turn of the century. Who will pay for this increased capacity? Where is the superhighway leading us?

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin