Doc’s Saving The Net, Universities, and NLR

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I spent a bunch of time this week working my way through Doc Searls’ long article in Linux Journal titled Saving The Net, where Doc lays out in some detail how the ever consolidating major carriers (both telco and cable) are working to recreate the internet in their own familiar image, into a “content delivery” system instead of the freely open space for exchange of all sorts that it has evolved into. It’s a great rant, and if you haven’t read it, you should.

Dave Weinberger, commenting on the piece, thinks Doc’s too optimistic about the possibility of having an impact on these trends, and invites us to join him “in his trough of despair”. But Dave does note that the Berkman Center’s Charlie Nesson “made a case for universities becoming such a bastion of the open Internet and the intertwingling of knowledge that they make it impossible to close our Internet. They could be champions of our Net.”

We shouldn’t forget that the current Internet evolved in universities and other research institutions (like CERN, where the Web was born) and that much of the real innovation on the net has been created to serve the research communities that live in higher-ed institutions around the globe. Having just taken a turn around the exhibit floor at SC05 last week, I can say that the continued drive for innovation in high performance networked computing among the research communities has not abated a bit. The demonstrations on the show floor were nothing short of breathtaking. And the engine that makes this research work is the network – it’s noticeable that at SC05 the Pacific Northwest Gigapop provisioned the show with more than half a terabit per second of network connectivity.

One thing’s for certain – the telcos and cable companies, and their partners in the mainstream entertainment industry, who together are relentlessly focused on building networks to satisfy the demand for music, movies, games, and porn, are not going to be primarily interested in providing lots of unfettered bandwidth to support creativity, innovation, or connectedness.

And what can we do about it? Well, thinking about all of this over the course of the week has sure given me new insight into and appreciation for the sheer audacious chutzpah of folks like Tracy Futhey, Tom West, and Ron Johnson, who have gone out and actually bought and provisioned a new high-speed national network of dark fiber. This new network, called National LambdaRail is owned its members, which are universities, research labs, and regional research network providers. The true brilliance here is not these partners are running their own network – universities have been running the Internet2 network for some years now, running on leased fiber – but the fact that with NLR the members actually own the physical layer that the network is built on.

While the focus of NLR today is to “to provide a national scale infrastructure for research and experimentation in networking technologies and applications”, I have to think that these far-sighted folks are at least thinking about how to provide for continued innovation and creativity across the board, as the commodity Internet is pressured to become an ever more controlled environment. I particularly like this statement on the NLR home page:

NLR puts the control, the power and the promise of experimental network infrastructure in the hands of our nation’s scientists and researchers.

It’s enough to give you at least some hope for the future, which on Thanksgiving Day 2005, feels pretty good to me.

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