Funding and building HP networks for research and education in Europe

Amsterdam 23 April 1998 Europe urgently needs a decent high-performance network infrastructure for research and education purposes since the existing one is completely saturated. Various initiatives and projects within the European Commission (EC) have and are being undertaken to find our own original European answer to the huge telecommunication challenge. Unfortunately, the EC projects are limited in time, complex in administration and far too slow. The idea of involving the industry has not quite matured yet in Europe because of the possible conflicting business interests. Meanwhile, time is running out on us, Mr. Hans-Peter Axmann of the Federal Ministry of Science and Transport in Austria anxiously warns the ITIS'98 audience, so "please, do let us join forces and keep up the pressure."

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Europe urgently needs a decent high-performance network infrastructure for research and education purposes since the existing one is completely saturated. Various initiatives and projects within the European Commission (EC) have and are being undertaken to find our own original European answer to the huge telecommunication challenge. Unfortunately, the EC projects are limited in time, complex in administration and far too slow. The idea of involving the industry has not quite matured yet in Europe because of the possible conflicting business interests. Meanwhile, time is running out on us, Mr. Hans-Peter Axmann of the Federal Ministry of Science and Transport in Austria anxiously warns the ITIS'98 audience, so "please, do let us join forces and keep up the pressure."

In health care, there is a growing use of audio-visual applications in teleconsultancy, telediagnosis and distant patient care. This calls for high speed network connections with a guaranteed quality of service. Yet, we face a typical chicken-and-egg problem in the sense that broadband applications are considered superfluous as long as there is no network technology infrastructure available to support them. Still, there is a great demand for excellent telecommunication facilities in the research area which is aiming at results, translated into the manufacturing of products. At the national level, the governments have to provide a research-friendly environment, but on a European level, nobody seems to feel responsible. Research equally includes teaching and learning, not only in the scientific field but also in culture and fine arts. The involved parties are universities; research, cultural, and teaching institutions; libraries and museums.

The first group which offered useful recommendations in this domain was the European Consultative Forum on Research Networking or ECFRN. The requirements implied the set up of a technical infrastructure with strong political support to obtain funding. Finally, this amounted in a European project, EUROCAIRN, for the immediate development of a trans-European infrastructure. The project ended in June 1996 with the edition of the Dante-report and the creation of a permanent organisation dealing with funding and policy making, called the ENPG of which Mr. Axmann is chairman. The ENPG serves as an umbrella for all academic and industrial research networking in Europe to coordinate policies.

Parallel to this initiative, a number of important European Community activities are also dealing with the infrastructure issue. One of them was the Bangemann White Paper (BWP) which mentioned the networking of universities and research centres under the heading "Networking Europe's brain power". Unfortunately, the BWP has been based upon unrealistic assumptions such as a ready-made infrastructure, self-regulating market mechanisms, and progressive liberalisation. A second activity constituted the Fourth Framework Programme (1994-1998) in which two proposals were accepted after the first call in 1994, namely JAMES, a testbed network which ended in March'98, and TEN34. At the end of 1997, a third proposal for IP-based services has been accepted, referred to as QUANTUM.

TEN34 is a very complex but nicely operating network but it also is a project which will come to an end in July'98. QUANTUM will be its successor. One of the main questions in Europe is whether we are going to deal with intercontinental connectivity because these lines are substantially cheaper. In this regard, we have learned a few lessons. The market doesn't provide what the networks need, deregulation has not brought prices down, and the European projects are too limited in time. In the upcoming Fifth Framework Programme (1999-2002) which hasn't been approved yet, support measures for network infrastructure are being integrated. Since the existing infrastructure is overloaded, we have to make more communication entrances available and create competition in order to bring prices down.

The parties involved to solve the problem are the national governments represented in the ENPG, the European Commission, Terena as the umbrella organisation of the national research networks, their management organisation DANTE, and the industry. Maybe, industry will never become a player in the field because of its main interest in revenu and competitiveness where research has no priority. And what about the old and new TNO's and application developers? The established telecom companies are not willing to invest in new infrastructure, the new starters do but have no experience with networking. Still, there is a lot of activity going on cabling Europe.

If we compare the European situation to connectivity facilities in the USA, their situation looks positive but it is impossible to buy bandwidth across the ocean because the capacity need has been underestimated and fully reserved by now. The US NSF network is probably the best infrastructure one can imagine. Initially, it was being subsidised but the market took over to serve a broad user public. Consequently, the research community didn't get what it wanted anymore and started the Internet 2 initiative. Experience has learned that Europe shouldn't copy the US mistakes because our culture and philosophy are entirely different.

Perhaps, the geostationary satellites, referred to as fibre in the sky, can provide an alternative? Unfortunately, they don't offer real time services. In the future however, they hopefully might supply broadband connectivity to the home through an ordinary satellite dish. According to Mr. Axmann, the ultimate solution should be sought in a mix of technologies to satisfy our communication needs. The four key players in Europe have to aim for knowledge networks, that are separated from the public internet but integrated in a transparent European Backbone Network, which interconnects all of them through Euro-Pop on an intercontinental level and to the commodity internet as well for information exchange.

The QUANTUM architecture looks exactly like this but it needs funding. Over a period of four years, a cost sharing model of a 60% or 70 million ecus/year contribution by the member states and a 40% or 50 million ecus/year subsidy by the European Commission has to be applied because the infrastructure supports all projects of the Fifth Framework. The support of a European research space is capital for the development of a genuine European research. Mr. Axmann suggests to allocate the funds to three basic components as follows:

  1. the production network provided by TEN34: 35 Mecu and 37,5 Mecu
  2. the testbed: 5 Mecu and maybe more from other sources
  3. the intercontinental connectivity: 20 Mecu and 18,75 Mecu
The initial EC proposal for the Information Society and Technology Programme amounted to 3940 Mecu but will be limited to 3363 Mecu. The ENPG has offered 5%, which was originally 200 Mecu but should proportionally decrease to 170 Mecu. After internal discussion however, the EC decided for only 2-4% which reduces the final sum to something between 70 to 140 Mecu.

In spite of TEN34 and QUANTUM, Europe is constantly dragging behind the other players in the field, especially the USA. What the Fifth Framework Programme will bring, still remains open to question. Since nobody will stop and wait for us, we have a lot of catching up to do. Mr. Axmann insists we urgently have to unite forces, from whatever discipline we are, and make it clear to the decision makers that Europe needs a proper, strong and supportive infrastructure to fulfil its research purposes.


Leslie Versweyveld

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