In the autumn of 1996, thirty four American universities set up an ad hoc project, called Internet2. Their mission was to provide the desktop PC user with ever growing faster access to data. By October 1997, one hundred sixteen universities and various information technology companies in the States were participating to develop applications that would benefit from the enormous increases in speed and bandwidth being created in a federally funded networking effort similar to the early days of the Internet. At present, the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development constitutes the global organisation for the commercialisation of Internet2 technology. The next generation of the Internet will undoubtedly exercise a profound influence on the future implementations of the telemedicine concept.
After fifteen months of testing, the Internet2 corporation has reached some outstanding results. At the start, speeds of 155 megabits per second were achieved but at the end of 1997, performance had been enhanced up to 622 megabits per second. Currently, researchers are aiming at 2.4 gigabits which means 2.4 billion bits per second. Consider that today's fastest modems only handle information at speeds of 128.000 bits per second while T-1 Internet connections travel the Web at 1.54 megabits per second. The use of Internet2 is still limited to universities and government agencies at this point but within the next two or three years, this 'Roadrunner' will be integrated in the existing Internet, according to Alan Blatecky, vice president of information technology for Microfabrication Computing and Network Corporation in North Carolina.
No need to emphasise that the arrival of Internet2 offers new and unexpected perspectives for telemedical health care. At the University of California, scientists are already envisaging the possibility to enable biologists at other universities to search a molecular database in San Diego. Particular images of a molecule can be selected and transmitted in order to present the three-dimensional results on the personal computer of the researcher who gets a chance to study and understand the molecules' functions, their interaction and their qualities. Under Internet2, these kind of operations will belong to the normal routine, as Philip Bourne, senior staff scientist for the San Diego Supercomputer Centre states.
A radical improvement is bound to take place in the quality of real-time video consultations between primary care clinicians and specialists. Up till now, the connection was established through T-1 lines or other quite expensive telecommunications links, working however at the hardly sufficient speed of five frames per second for a full-motion video, which is slow compared to a movie running at 30 frames per second. The images looked jerky and were poor in quality. At this moment, Internet2 offers a capacity of 10 to 15 frames per second but soon will be able to approach and even match movie results.
The incredible capacity of Internet2 brings up another issue. The user's desktop equipment, such as the Web browser for instance, should be able to handle the enhanced speed. Already in 1995, The National Science Foundation (NSF) started a five year project to create the very high performance backbone network service (vBNS) linking five NSF super computer centres to research universities. At present, the Internet2 corporation is building the vBNS off-ramps consisting of regional networks, advanced routers and other network applications that will link universities and desktop PCs to the vBNS. More detailed news about the funding of the Next Generation Internet initiative is to be found at the Health Data Management web site which has served as a source for this article.