Internet 2 & Distance Education


Karen D. King, RDH, MHeD


Roz Seymour, EdD, RN, CS

Editor-in-Charge of Education and Informatics

King, K. & Seymour, R. (January, 2002). Internet 2 & Distance Education. Online Journal of Nursing Informatics (OJNI). Vol. 6, No. 1. [Online]. Available at http://ojni.org/6_1/article3.htm


Internet2 (I2) is a collaborative program effort, between 176 universities, approximately 70 private corporations, and the federal government, to develop and implement the next Internet (www.internet2.edu, 2000a).  The University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID) established the program in 1996 to develop applications and networking systems dedicated to meeting the needs of a 21st century educational mission. Private computer and networking companies are closely involved in building I2, contributing equipment and engineering staff, with an eye to its potential commercial application spin-offs.

Internet2 is a collection of multiple college campus, research networks.   According to Fowler (1999), the mission of I2 includes development, deployment facilitation, operation and technology transfer, and coordination of advanced network-based applications and network services, to further advance U.S. leadership in research and higher education, and to accelerate the availability of new public Internet services and applications. Its primary focus is however on the development of applications for teaching, learning, and research (Houweling, 1998). Internet2 is not being developed to create a parallel private Internet nor to replace the existing public Internet: the one that has been so commercialized that it is lost to the academic and research communities.  Internet2 will be a dedicated, high-speed network of unique applications which will promote the interests of academics in teaching, learning, and research. Internet2 will also function as a test-bed for the development of the new technologies needed to support these unique applications. The final goal for I2 is to provide the public Internet with the technology developed on a private Internet (I2) (Fowler, 1999).

Technical Fundamentals 

            The initial backbone for I2 was the very high performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS).  In 1995, MCI was named the vBNS provider and provides the networking protocol. In January 1999, the first 2.5 gigabits per second link began carrying traffic between Los Angeles and San Francisco (Fowler, 1999b). With  vBNS already in place, it was logical that I2 would use it as a backbone, but more than one backbone was needed.  The Abilene Backbone, another UCAID project, is inter-connected with vBNS. Universities connect to the national backbone infrastructure through  GigaPops.  A GigaPops key function is to manage the exchange of information on I2 with specified bandwidth and other quality of service attributes (Internet2:  Preliminary Engineering Report, 1997). While vBNS provides connection to the existing Internet as well as I2, the Abilene backbone is only available to I2 users. Only institutions of higher education that participate in the I2 project, through UCAID membership, are eligible to use the network. This private network provides an environment in which researchers and industry participants can test new technologies to solve the bandwidth constraints, quality of service problems, and security issues that distress the public Internet (Lynch, 1998).  This research will be of great benefit to the research and academic communities as well as corporate Internet users. 

Important Initiatives 

            The I2 project collaborators have developed workgroups to address the specific performance issues that these new advanced applications require (www.internet2.edu, 2000b).  One of the most significant I2 initiatives is being addressed by the Quality of Service (QoS) workgroup.  The test bed for new IP quality of service technologies is the Qbone.  Some advanced applications will not run on the public Internet because it is data-clogged and the current IP communications standard for the public Internet treats all data packets as equal. This makes massive data exchange or the transmission of real-time data difficult. The differentiated services of QoS means that the system will treat some data packets as more important than others and reserve needed bandwidth for those so designated. This is the key to real-time data transmission. Internet2 has succeeded in providing a large amount of bandwidth capable of carrying almost infinite amounts of data. The challenge for I2 collaborators is to handle data in a time sensitive manner by developing a standard that can distinguish between more time-sensitive real-time packets of data and packets that are less time sensitive. 

The Internet2-Distributed Storage Infrastructure (I2-DSI) workgroup is working to enable the network to distribute information via shorter distances and into storage facilities.  Thus, by reducing delays due to distance, speeding access to information, files in storage could be replicated and delivered, to end-users, from the nearest information warehouse. This I2-DSI replication, which is similar in function to a cache on the World Wide Web, will improve I2 performance and reduce bandwidth demands through access to copies of the data from the warehouse (http://dsi.internet2.edu).

Another major enabler for multimedia and real time applications is multicasting. It allows groups to transmit data from one to many or from many to many, and members of the groups may transmit and receive data simultaneously.  Reliable multicast transmission over the existing public Internet has been a problem.  The Multicasting workgroup for I2 is testing applications and developing efficient protocols for reliable multicasting (www.internet2.edu, 2000c).  The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) had designed, what they assume to be, an improvement over the current IPv4.  The improvements it supports are unicast, anycast, and multicast addressing. An IPv6 header protocol includes authentication of origin and examination only at the destination point, which speeds up network performance.  Data packets thus identified as belonging to a particular data flow can be given higher quality of service.

The earliest designers of I2 thought IPv6 would solve all the problems of address space, speed, and quality of service.  However, it has become evident that the original public Internet IPv4 was also capable of providing the protocol for I2 (Lynch, 1998). Internet2 application initiatives are dependent on, 1) efficient and effective quality of service, 2) distributed storage, 3) multicasting, and 4) IPv6 addressing protocols.  Without these four network capabilities, the development and testing of Digital Video, Research TV, Tele-immersion, Virtual Laboratories, Digital Libraries, and Distance Independent Learning (DIL) would not be possible (www.internet2.edu, 2000d).

Digital Video and Research TV provide high quality traditional video, simulations, animations, virtual reality, movies, and images with audio sound tracks to the I2 community.  Experiments with digital video and research TV are providing valuable information about how this network behaves under a heavy load.  Availability of this type of video via I2 will have a significant impact on the future of academic learning environments. Tele-immersion will permit users, with models of shared work objects, from different locations, to collaborate in real time, in a shared virtual environment as if they were in the same physical location.  Individuals, able to see themselves with others in a far away virtual room, talking and manipulating objects, would be using one of I2s most advanced applications, and a premium technical challenge for I2.  Tele-immersion will require computers to recognize the presence and movements of individuals, track them, and project them into an immersive environment. 

Digital Libraries will take advantage of the very high bandwidth of I2 to broaden the use of continuous digital video and audio. Libraries will have the ability to organize and provide access to both multimedia and real-time data modules linked to text documents.  

Virtual Laboratories will give researchers, from around the world, opportunities to collaborate on a common set of projects. Shared visualizations in virtual laboratories will allow projects, containing large simulations, databases and scientific instruments, to be connected to the network. Large bandwidth and quality of service are critical to these kinds of specialized I2 applications. Distance Independent Learning (DIL) is an application initiative that addresses the needs of higher education for quality instructional software for distributed instruction.  The DIL tools can allow interactive data collection and analysis, and teachers and students, in real time classrooms, to share materials with students, in virtual classrooms, learning in a self-directed manner, under the supervision of a teacher.  These learning applications may promote the Instructional Management System (IMS), which is the current standard for use of the public Internet, to develop and deliver learning packages and track learning outcomes. 

Benefits and Limitations

            What can the educational community look forward to as I2 and its collaborators create advanced applications, increased bandwidth, and a higher quality of service?  Within a few years we should see advancements that include: 1) full screen distance learning programs broadcast concurrently to many different classrooms with the same quality as television, 2) video conferencing with high quality video and no time delay, 3) object oriented instructional models, 4) digital libraries with interactive simulations, 5) tele-immersion opportunities, and 6) a virtual research environment.  The I2 collaborators are working to provide the technical capabilities needed to run these and many other high performance applications even when part of the network path might be congested.

               It may take years for non-collaborating institutions to gain access to and be able to use the advanced applications of I2.  Even if I2 were available to all educational systems, the equipment upgrades required to use it would be expensive. The UCAID members have estimated that participating universities currently spend $500,000.00 annually for their I2 participation (www.internet2.edu, 2000e). The price for non-collaborating universities could be even higher depending on the hardware upgrades necessary at those universities.  Consequently, only the larger, more affluent universities will be able to participate and an I2 ‘digital divide’ in educational institutions, similar to the ‘digital divide’ recognized on the existing public Internet, could become a reality.   According to Houweling (1998), the I2 corporate partners believe that the applications developed and enabled by I2 will open new markets in areas such as collaborative computing and broadband multimedia networking.  The interest of the corporate sponsors should guarantee that the I2 technologies will become commercially available sooner rather than later (Fraone, 1999). 

News and Advances

            Illustrations of I2 applications are obtaining recognition in the educational and research communities.  The winners of the March 2000 I2 Land Speed Contest were a team composed of members from the University of Washington, the Information Sciences Institute of the University of South California, Qwest, and Microsoft. Together, they set a new standard for Internet performance by transferring 8.4 GBs of data (from Redmond, Washington to Arlington, Virginia) in 81 seconds. That was a rate of  just over 831 megabits per second.  A doctor in Washington, D.C. collaborated, in real time, with surgeons performing laproscopic surgeries on patients in the Ohio State University Medical Center operating rooms.  The doctor in Washington could see internal images of the patient’s abdomen as well as the operating room facilities and the vital statistics of the patient.  The doctor performing the surgery could see the consulting physician in Washington, D.C.  The doctors used wireless microphones to communicate during the procedure.

The Future

            Even though I2 is developing at WARP speed, it will not be an immediate solution to existing problems in the Internet for most institutions of higher education.  Internet2 university members must provide end-to-end broadband connectivity, form or participate in a Gigapop, and share in the development of advanced applications. There is no estimation as to when, or if, the high speed differentiated network and quality of service capabilities of Abilene and the vBNS will reach typical user desktops.   Regardless of the infrastructure in place, the hardware to the end user will effect the ultimate performance of the network.  Educational institutions that are not participants in the development of I2 cannot anticipate when faculty may be able to incorporate I2 developed applications into their classrooms.  Also, many I2 participants were involved in the development of the existing Internet and have learned from the past what commercial congestion can do to a network, and may not be willing to quickly expand I2 usage. 

Institutions able to afford I2 will have advantages in new technology that will not be accessible to universities with less financial prosperity.  More than likely, I2 access equality will be under discussion for years to come.