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A Networking Plan for the Rich States?

From: Science Magazine, June 13, 1997

By Jeffrey Mervis

A $100 million a year proposal by the Clinton Administration to connect more than 100 universities and laboratories to a faster and more capable computer network ran into its first serious opposition last week as legislators complained that it would leave poorer states behind. "I think you should go back to the drawing board," Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, advised a group of federal officials testifying about the Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative before a subgroup of the Senate Commerce Committee. "The institutions you're supporting, they don't need you - and we do."

"I think you should go back to the drawing board."

  -Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK)

Stevens and others are concerned that a separate set of research networking grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), seen as paving the way for NGI, have gone mostly to elite universities in wealthier states. They also have complained that an advisory committee reviewing federal information technology programs is stacked with representatives from California and, therefore, likely to ignore rural needs. Government officials say, however, that NGI is a research project and that quality rules.

The NGI is designed to give thousands of researchers the chance not only to exchange large databases and carry out joint research but also to develop better technologies and new uses for such an electronic superhighway (Science, 7 March, p. 1412). "This is an experimental project that's intended to push the technology," NSF director Neal Lane told communications subcommittee chair Conrad Burns (R-MT).

Last month, NSF announced 21 grants, averaging $600,000, to 35 institutions to allow them to communicate at speeds of 155 million bits a second on NSF's fledgling very high speed Backbone Network Service. Program officials say those connection awards combined with an earlier round of grants last summer, bring them more than halfway toward one of NGI's goals: to connect 100 sites at 100 times the speed of the existing Internet. But some legislators complain that few of the institutions chosen so far are in rural states. "Why would you proceed with a project that will further isolate the rural communities?" Stevens asked Lane. "You're using federal funds to help those who have already benefited from the system."

In response, agency officials say they see the NGI as a scientific work in progress, not just a new electronic highway. "We're looking for the best ideas, and geographic distribution is not a criterion," says NSF's Mark Luker, who runs NSF's $20 million a year connections program. John Connally, whose Center for Computational Research at the University of Kentucky received one of NSF's new connection grants, says, "My advice to the have-not states is to send in a proposal and tell NSF what research you want to do [on the network]."

In February, the Administration created a panel of outside experts to review policies on information technology, including issues of network access. But last month, two dozen senators complained in a letter to presidential science adviser Jack Gibbons that 11 of the first 20 members (five more appointments are expected shortly) of the panel live in California, that rural states were not represented, and that the proposed NGI "leaves our states outside the loop."

Testifying before the committee, panel co-chair and computer scientist Ken Kennedy of Rice University in Houston said his group is concerned about the issue of equity and plans to discuss it at its next meeting later this month. "There's no question that the rural states have problems with access," Kennedy said after the hearing. But he added, "I'm not sure that a research project is the right place to fix that."

Some senators at the hearing made it clear, however, that they are looking for signs that the Administration will address the needs of rural America. "If you don't do a better job," said Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), "there's a risk that Congress will not fund the initiative. Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) went even further: "What you heard [from Stevens] wasn't a question; it was a statement from the chair of the appropriations committee."

-Jeffrey Mervis

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