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Stanford researchers constructing ramps to information highway

STANFORD -- A proposal to build a pervasive, high-speed communications network in the San Francisco Bay Area took some concrete shape Friday, July 16, when Stanford University researchers and others described components and services they want to create.

Education, health care, business and government services could all be easier to obtain when individuals can retrieve and send more kinds of information from their home or workstation, speakers said.

By combining corporate contributions, local government assistance and some federal research grants, advocates of the network said, it now may be possible to build the first working regional model - dubbed "Smart Valley" - of a high-speed national network.

A national "digital superhighway" has been advocated by Vice President Al Gore since the 1970s, but there are no concrete plans in Washington, D.C., for building it, said William Miller, a professor in the Graduate School of Business who is vice chairman of Smart Valley Inc., the non-profit corporation created recently to guide the development of a regional information highway. Smart Valley is an offshoot of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, a group of business and government leaders who began meeting in 1991 to discuss ideas for revitalizing the region.

Smart Valley founders believe the regional highway can be built largely with private funds, Miller said.

"This is largely a bottoms up effort. It's a different way to think about industrial policy," he told a standing-room-only audience of about 100 Stanford faculty and staff in Turing Auditorium.

Anyone in the Bay Area can apply for help from Pacific Bell in implementing a piece of the information network, an official of that company said. With shareholder funds, the company's board recently created a trust that will pay for up to two year's of free service and expedited equipment installation in the Bay Area and downtown Los Angeles for a few projects.

Pacific Bell is looking for collaborative projects among businesses, government agencies, schools and private non-profit groups, so that a wide range of potential uses can be demonstrated to the general public, said Rick Hronicek, program director of Pac Bell's new California Research and Education Network program.

"We feel that with no other stimulus, we are caught in a classical chicken and egg scenario where infrastructure providers, including Pac Bell, are waiting for a market - these being the applications for communications technology and information - and the application developers are waiting for the infrastructure," Hronicek said.

"At minimum, we look at Smart Valley as a catalyst to form projects that demonstrate the benefits."

Proposals can be submitted for "fast, faster and fastest" lanes of the highway, he said. The "fast" lane would provide information 10 times faster than the standard home modem, and the fastest lanes would be suitable for such things as transmission of pictures from spacecraft to a technical museum.

Stanford researchers and staff then presented some of their ideas for making use of the Pac Bell program, other corporate grants and federal Technical Reinvestment Project grants through the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

New educational opportunities include the opportunity to make conferences and lectures available to people at their workstations at times convenient to them, said Anthony DiPaolo, assistant dean of engineering and director of Stanford Instructional Television Network. SITN already delivers classes - mostly advanced engineering coursework via microwave transmission - to students at 220 sites, but students must take it when and where its offered.

Dale Harris, director of the Stanford Center for Telecommunications, described one experiment under way with GTE Sprint, for delivering high- speed two-way instruction from the Stanford campus to computer workstations. The student's computer screen displays a video picture of the classroom simultaneously with data from reference materials or overhead projectors in the classroom. The data channel also allows the student to share data with those in the classroom.

The "initial bottleneck," Harris said is not technology but its cost. "To pull a fiber connection from the basement of my building to my office costs nearly $1,000," he said, and the standard workstation computer, which now costs $2,000 to $4,000, has to be "souped up" to a machine that today costs $10,000.

Robert Burmeister of Stanford's U.S.-Japan Technology Management Center discussed that center's plans for using high-speed fiber-optic links to deliver live video seminars from research sites in Japan to Silicon Valley engineers and managers interested in the same subjects.

This past spring, the center and Stanford Instructional Television Network successfully delivered two seminars from a downtown Tokyo studio to Terman Engineering Building on the Stanford campus, he said, but the center would like to relay the seminars to work sites in the Bay Area or even on the East Coast.

With fiber-optics cable already installed in the basement of many campus buildings, Stanford is in a good position to link into other high- speed networks, DiPaolo said. Pacific Bell has just installed a fiber- optics link from SITN in Durand Hall to Vyvk, an infrastructure provider in San Francisco, in order to allow the Stanford News Service, Hoover Institution and other campus sources to send high-quality television pictures to television networks and stations around the country without the use of a satellite.

The Bay Area already has an enormous investment in telecommunications links, which need to be made to work together, several speakers stressed at the forum.

"A group of faculty at Stanford are in the process of forming an organization to address the middle layer of software - software needed for integrating everything that's already out there," said Jeff Ullman, chairman of the Computer Science Department.

"What we are adding to the distributed computing picture is like what windows or operating systems add to the single computing device; it's the thing that sits between the raw hardware and most primitive layers of software and makes your creation and use of applications considerably easier," Ullman said.

The faculty involved are Ed Feigenbaum and Richard Fikes, whose expertise is knowledge systems; Hector Garcia-Molina and Ullman, who work on databases; Mike Genesereth and Yoav Shoham, whose specialty is agent-oriented systems; and Terry Winograd, who works on human-computer interaction.

The "middleware tools" would enable such things as:

  • More computerized commerce. Companies could send product specifications and parts catalogs to a wide range of suppliers and customers, for example.
  • Personal access to information from such disparate sources as libraries and video servers. One area elementary school is experimenting with video-server technology that allows a teacher to order a particular tape for display at a specific time on the classroom's television. This could be done on a regional level eventually.
  • Collaborative design and manufacturing, in which people at different locations share access to the same evolving information.
  • Medical information sharing. Patient records and insurance company coverage provisions, for example, could be available online through the network.
  • Creation of new information-resource products, such as a physics knowledge base that the Stanford Knowledge Systems Lab is developing to "help you do any design that involves physics," Ullman said.
  • Innovative delivery of education to the home and workplace.

High-level middleware needs to be able to do more than get two vendors' systemware to work together, Ullman said. It has to connect systems at "a level that involves meaning of information, not just bits." The Stanford researchers are applying for federal grants for research to "integrate the semantics of communication."

One integration project under way is called CommerceNet. Major Silicon Valley manufacturers, such as Apple, Sun, Hewlett-Packard and Intel, are working with J. Marty Tenenbaum of the Stanford Center for Information Systems and Enterprise Integration Technologies of Palo Alto. They seek to develop an application that would allow them to transmit product data not just among themselves but to smaller jobs shops with whom they work, said Alan Schiffman of the Palo Alto company.

"CommerceNet is to provide wires, communication protocols and software to companies and bring some Stanford expertise," Schiffman said. "This is all being built on Internet [a network of some 5,000 networks used by some 10 million people around the world], which we take for granted at Stanford. But it is new to business to use a public network."

One of the first projects Smart Valley hopes to complete is the development of a Bay Area digital atlas, said Seth Fearey of Hewlett Packard and the technical adviser to the Smart Valley organization.

"We talked to a couple of municipalities - Palo Alto and Mountain View - and found out they were running experiments to put their records into Geographic Information Systems, but they weren't talking to each other. So, if you tried to line up sewer lines on their maps, you couldn't because they were using different coordinates," Fearey said.

By building a regional base map with the same coordinates, municipalities can layer utilities, traffic patterns, parcel and tax-roll maps that will fit into a regional system, he said. The Santa Clara Water District has contributed $25,000 to the effort.

"Because nobody's trying to own the data at this point, it's generating a lot of support," Fearey said.

A regional network could improve the quality and reduce the costs of health care in a variety of ways, said Mark Musen, assistant professor at the Stanford Medical School. Smart Valley could link clinics, hospitals, paramedic units, insurance companies and consumers for quick transmission of information. Consumers, for example, could compare costs and coverage on insurance, make appointments on line or communicate with doctors by electronic mail, he said, and medical professionals and insurers would have more feedback on performance and costs, as well as instant access to patient's records.

Roadblocks to such linkages are both technical and sociological, said Stu Phillips, manager of communication development at Tandem Computers. On leave to organize technical committees for Smart Valley, Phillips said that one will deal with "cyber-sociology" or "the people issues."

"People from 5 to 105 will be using the infrastructure, and there's going to be material wildly inappropriate to a 5-year-old and probably to the 105-year-old," Phillips said.

"We're going to have to put some guidelines in place to deal with the ethics, cultural issues, standards of behavior and really think of this as the formation of an electronic constitution."

On the technical side, a subcommittee will first attempt to assess what wire and wireless infrastructure is already available in the Bay Area, which will help individual entities plan their technological growth, Phillips said.

Smart Valley Inc. hopes also to serve as an information base for application developers who will build products for various sectors using the system. "I'm unsure Smart Valley will define any [technical] standards except on a de facto basis," Phillips said.

A third subcommittee will investigate the set of services that are needed to support use and operation of the infrastructure, he said. Its members will deal with encryption and privacy, authentication that data is really from who it claims to be from, and provision of base services - such as electronic mail and directories - to navigate the system.

The campus forum on Smart Valley was sponsored by Stanford Libraries and Information Services, and a second is planned for fall quarter. For more information, contact Networking Systems at (415) 723- 3909.



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