|New Plan for Next Generation Internet:
Is It Too Little Too Late?
"We must build the second generation of the Internet so that our leading universities and national laboratories can communicate in speeds 1,000 times faster than today, to develop new medical treatments, new sources of energy, new ways of working together."
But we cannot stop there. As the Internet becomes our new town square, a computer in every home -- a teacher of all subjects, a connection to all cultures -- this will no longer be a dream, but a necessity. And over the next decade, that must be our goal."
On September 10, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), chairman of the House Science Committee, upbraided representatives of the Clinton Administration for their slowness in putting together a detailed plan for implementing the proposed Next Generation Internet (NGI).
In his fiscal year 1998 budget request, the President asked for $100 million dollars to fund the NGI initiative. The funding was to come out of the budgets of five different federal agencies, primarily the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, initiator of the original Internet), the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Science Foundation, and NASA. The other contributors are the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health.
The President's original proposal first ran into trouble in Congress this past Spring. Despite congressional support for the principles underlying the NGI proposal, many committees withheld funding for the initiative at that time in order to secure a more detailed implementation plan from the Administration. Many members also expressed concern that the original plan provided only a few select locations with enhanced connectivity. This would have meant that some areas of the country, like Alaska and parts of the Midwest, would be left behind as infrastructural improvements were made. Some also questioned the role of the federal government in improving the Internet, asserting that taxpayer dollars should not be spent on something that industry would do anyway.
In order to more thoroughly address congressional concerns, the Administration revised the NGI proposal, releasing a new draft implementation plan in July. The new plan identifies NGI as a research initiative, rather than a deployment initiative, more clearly than the original proposal. Its first stated goal is to conduct experimental research to develop advanced network technologies, with DARPA as the leading federal agency. Goal number two is to implement a high-speed "network fabric" which will provide the means to test new technologies. This fabric will provide connectivity about 100 times faster than the current Internet to at least 100 universities and federal research sites. Goal three is to come up with "revolutionary applications," new ways of using the technologies that will emerge from the NGI research. Hopes are high for this aspect of the initiative which has the potential to allow unimaginable means of communicating, collaborating, and creating.
Since the language of the new NGI Draft Implementation Plan is focused on research and development, the door is left wide open for private interests to actually implement the technologies that emerge. This may help assuage the concerns of members of Congress who detected possible "corporate welfare" in the initial version of the plan. In addition, the revised plan's Administration proponents are specifically addressing the concerns of members of Congress from areas that would have a tough time participating in NGI. "The Presidential Advisory Committee [on NGI] is very concerned about this problem because we believe that networking should bring all parts of the Nation together rather than amplify any geographical disadvantages," stated Dr. John Gibbons, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy on September 10. Dr. Gibbons went on to explain that some areas, like Alaska, would require far more money than NGI had to offer to bring them up to full speed for the test network. However, the federal agencies involved in NGI are being encouraged to provide increased funding to disadvantaged locations.
However, despite these efforts to assuage congressional concerns, it may be too late to save funding for NGI in 1998 according to Rep. Sensenbrenner. "The trains going to leave the station," he said sterrnly at a hearing on September 10. Congress is now at the point in the session where the focus is on appropriating funds for the federal agencies. Since much of the NGI funding has not even been authorized, the Administration is running out of time to get NGI on the appropriators' priority list. Rep. Sensenbrenner expressed indignation at the length of time the Administration had taken in providing the revised NGI plan, and said that NGI would most likely have to make do with about half of the President's original request for the initiative. His plea to the Administration was to try to salvage the funding for fiscal year 1998, but, more importantly, also start getting ready for 1999. "Please go back to the White House and come up with a game plan ASAP," he advised.