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Wiring the nation

Nations around the globe are energetically working to update their networks with fiber-optic cable, which would give schools, hospitals, libraries and commercial users high-speed access to the Interne...

January 1, 2001  

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Nations around the globe are energetically working to update their networks with fiber-optic cable, which would give schools, hospitals, libraries and commercial users high-speed access to the Internet by 2002.

Countries are in various stages of meeting such a goal. In the Netherlands, university students can buy 100 Mbps switched Ethernet for less than $15 a month while the country revamps its research network (SURFnet5) to 20 Gbps; English researchers are close to completing a high-energy physics backbone (SuperJANET 4) that will soon operate at 20 Gbps; and the American Internet2 Abilene network is boosting its bandwidth to 100 Mbps across the country for its 180 member institutions.

One of the leaders remains Canada, which has developed CA*net 3 (or CA3), the world’s first national optical research network and education network. An optical network is any Internet network where the network link layer connections are dedicated wavelengths on a wave division multiplexed (WDM) optical fiber directly connected to a high-performance network router.

The organization behind the optical first is Ottawa-based CANARIE Inc., established in 1993 as Canada’s advanced Internet development organization. CA3’s first segment began operating in the fall of 1998, and the final link is expected to be connected to Prince Edward Island in mid-December 2000. Online are 200 institutions, including 80 universities like McGill and Dalhousie, 30 research organizations like National Research Council and Canadian Space Agency, and 10 commercial labs like Nortel and Ericsson.

CANARIE’s current goal is to develop a networked nation, where every school, home and business would connect to the Internet at speeds approaching one Gbps. “We are in the midst of the second Internet revolution, one that will transform markets, organizations and business models,” Andrew K. Bjerring, president and chief executive officer of CANARIE, recently told a Montreal audience at its 6th Advanced Networks Workshop.

One theme emphasized at the two-day workshop was the movement away from the telephone company (telco) model that stresses a centralized hub to route calls, to that of dark fiber-built community networks. Simply put, dark fiber is fiber-optic cable that telcos have previously installed, but remain unused, or unlit. Therefore, it leases its excess strands to users, which provides the necessary components to make these work. The fiber is neither controlled nor connected to any telco.

Building small networks

In Alberta, the provincial government has committed $193 million and signed a 10-year deal with Bell Intrigna Inc., which has kicked in $102 million, to develop a high-speed network that will unite its 420 communities — most of them rural.

“Our goal is to connect 90 per cent of Albertans in three years,” says Grant Chaney of Edmonton, chief technology officer for Alberta’s ministry of innovation and science and head of the Supernet project. “When Alberta Supernet is successful, college presidents will no longer be spending their time looking for bandwidth.” Fees are expected to vary between $246 a month for a 256-kbps line to $697 a month for a 100 Mbps line.

Ontario’s region of Peel, a suburban community west of Toronto that includes Brampton, Mississauga and Caledon, has built a $7.5-million public service network (PSN) — currently the largest municipal fiber backbone in North America. The PSN connects such services as police, fire, hospitals and libraries — more than 125 sites in total. Among its applications are video-conferencing, telemedicine and security monitoring.

In installing the network, the regional government calculates that it has saved more than $2 million a year that would have gone to leasing dark fiber. There have been some unforeseen benefits, as well. “You don’t necessarily build the network to have remote monitoring of arenas, but when you have a network in place, you can do remote monitoring of arenas,” says Roy Wiseman, director of information technology services for the regional municipality of Peel in Brampton.

The 200-kilometre fiber-optic network consists of a 96-strand backbone and 12-to-60-strands elsewhere, which is installed 90 per cent above ground on hydro poles and 10 per cent underground in conduits. “That’s enough fiber for a small country,” Wiseman notes. “If laid end-to-end, the fiber would run from St. John’s, NF, to Victoria, BC — and back again.”

Across the Atlantic, the big news is the 200-million euro pan-European GEANT network, which is expected to start operating by November 2001 with initial speeds of between 2.5 Gbps and 10 Gbps. At first, between six and 10 countries will connect to it, including England, France and Israel, and that number will expand to 20 within four years as such former Communist Bloc countries as Slovakia and Lithuania come online.

Once completed, it will connect over 3,000 organizations, mostly research institutes and universities. “In Europe, there has been a tremendous investment in fiber-optic capacity — the days of rationing are over,” says Dai Davies, general manager of Dante in Cambridge, England, the company overseeing the European networks project.

More than 16 companies have placed bids to develop the network. “There is not only a lot of competition out there, but a lot of fiber,” Davies says. “One of the things in our favour is the significant downward movement of the price of networking in Europe,” which has dropped to a yearly average of 5,000 euros a Mb from 200,000 euros a Mb in four years.

The next-generation network

Traffic on all major research networks is increasing. In Canada, for example, the number of Mbps of information transferred doubles every four months on the CA3 network. At current rates of growth and with the arrival of high-definition television (HDTV) in early to mid 2001, CANARIE’s St. Arnaud predicts that CA3 will become congested by the fourth quarter of 2001. As well, CA3’s contract expires on July 31, 2002. Small wonder, then, that St. Arnaud is looking at the next-generation network, CA4.

CA4’s thinking is to decentralize control of networks even further, beyond that of schools, universities and municipalities managing their own dark fiber, but of controlling wavelets. “Let’s build an optical network where the control rests with the user rather than at a central point,” St. Arnaud says. “We want to empower users to operate wavelets on the network in the same manner that users today control their computers.”

Perry J. Greenbaum is a Montreal-based freelance writer who writes about business and technology for a number of Canadian publications. He can be reached at

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