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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tom Still: Wisconsin can play a prominent role in reinventing the Internet


By Tom Still
MADISON – By any standard, the Internet ranks as one of the leading innovations of our time. It has revolutionized everything from commerce to medicine to entertainment, all within the confines of a generation.

Too bad it's getting a bit long of tooth.

Although a spry 30-something in appearances, the Internet is prematurely aging. In part because of how it was built decades ago, the Internet is losing its ability to adapt. Many of the features that made the Internet a game-changer were baked into its infrastructure, making it difficult for today's engineers and computer scientists to innovate. The Internet was born in a mainframe world and now lives in a mobile society.

The need to essentially re-invent the Internet is behind a trend called "software defined networking," or Open Flow, that has commanded the attention of the industry's biggest names, academic researchers, major telecommunication providers and the White House itself.

Among the leaders in the movement is the UW-Madison, which last week formally announced its partnership with Cisco Systems – which developed the first commercially successful router – to create Open Flow capabilities for Cisco networking switches. It's a two-way street that means UW-Madison computer scientists will also get help from Cisco in building an experimental Open Flow network on the UW-Madison campus.

"Public-private partnerships like this create real value, enabling a higher level of innovation than is possible when companies and universities work in isolation," said Bruce Maas, vice provost for information technology and chief information officer for UW-Madison.

A day after the Cisco announcement, Maas and UW-Madison computer scientist Suman Banerjee were part of the curtain-raiser for U.S. Ignite, a public-private initiative to promote development of advanced applications serving universities, cities, manufacturing, health care and more.

That was paired with news that UW-Madison had won a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to begin work on the Global Environment for Innovation Network, a test bed that will bind other major universities and cities through use of software defined networking. It's a prototype that could dramatically boost broadband speeds – as much as 100 times faster than typical speeds today.

Maas believes Wisconsin could become the first state in the nation to embrace the Internet's trend toward software defined networking, especially if the public and private sectors work together.

Significantly, U.S. Ignite's supporters include AT&T, a major broadband service provider that is occasionally criticized – along with other major carriers – for not doing enough to make broadband coverage universal.

"The innovation targeted by U.S. Ignite speaks not only to our imagination but also exemplifies how government and private industry can work together," said John Donovan, AT&T's senior vice president for technology and network operations. "It is essential that we all work together to overcome the remaining barriers to universal broadband and the extension of advanced wireless service across America."

Is this a kumbaya moment in the Internet world? Not entirely.

Critics say the single biggest factor holding back broadband deployment and speeds in the United States is the refusal of major players to share the same delivery lines. "Nearly every other civilized country in the world requires some sort of compromise where multiple companies can compete while using the same physical broadband lines," wrote Sascha Segan, a columnist for PCMag.com .

Maas sees the advent of Open Flow and coalitions such as U.S. Ignite as an opportunity to get past those hurdles, however, especially if it's viewed first as an engineering and science problem to be solved by engineers and scientists.

"These two events present a real opportunity for Wisconsin. Working with others in Milwaukee and across the state, we can (build) this network. Let's talk about getting real engineers together to talk about what Wisconsin can do," Maas said. "It's the Wisconsin Idea at work."

Wisconsin has its challenges in terms of providing meaningful broadband and mobile coverage, and not just in rural areas of the state. Rather than wait for others to reinvent the Internet, Wisconsin experts can play a significant statewide role.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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