Texas universities teaming up to launch research network

Effort would put researchers on high-speed data highway

By Kirk Ladendorf
Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Twenty-seven public and private colleges in Texas are working together to create a high-speed communications network that would link academic researchers across the state.

The schools, which include the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Baylor University, Texas Tech and the Texas Association of Community Colleges, are working hard to collaborate and save money rather than competing for scarce financial resources.

Their project is the creation of the LoneStar Education and Research Network, or LEARN, which would link nearly all the state's colleges with a common high-speed fiber-optic network. It also would serve as an entry ramp onto a new national research information highway in a project called the National LambdaRail, or NLR.

Some academic computing experts say they think the NLR may eventually replace the Internet2 network project, which was created in 1996 as a high-speed communications link for researchers at more than 200 colleges.

NLR will be an improvement over Internet2 because it will be made up of four sub-networks that will operate separately. That will enable researchers to have separate communications pathways for such subjects as biomedicine, physics and advanced network research. Experiments can be conducted on part of the network without jeopardizing the flow of information on other segments.

The schools plan to pool resources to pay the estimated $7.5 million the Texas network will cost, plus the $5 million cost over five years of joining with the NLR network. The schools are hopeful that they can tap the recently created Texas Enterprise Fund, which Gov. Rick Perry controls, for some of the money, because of its ties to research and indirect ties to economic development.

"This is essential for the economic development of the states to be attracting the best researchers and graduate students to Texas schools," said Daniel Updegrove, vice president for information technology at UT and a member of the organizing committee.

The first parts of the NLR are expected to be in operation early next year, while the Texas network is expected to be operational by late 2004.

Texas hopes to learn from other states such as California, which have built high-speed research networks in collaborative ventures involving many schools.

Updegrove said the LEARN group brought in California officials to find out how that state got dozens of schools to collaborate on a statewide network project.

"It was important for us to see that we were our own worst enemy in some ways," Updegrove said. "We could get a lot more done if we just work together."

The 27 member schools each have pledged $20,000 a year in dues to get the LEARN organization started.

The timing looks good for saving money on the high-speed network. The telecommunications industry has yet to emerge from its prolonged slump, and several companies have built fiber networks in Texas with substantial unused capacity.

The LEARN group plans to negotiate long-term leases for unused "dark fiber" on one or more networks to create its own regional information highway. Once the group has the necessary fiber, it will have to invest in the optoelectronics required to activate the fiber and to manage the new network.

High-speed networks are crucial research tools, Updegrove said, because of the vast amounts of information required in some research fields, such as biomedicine and weather.