The Doric Column

June 1, 1999

"Technopolis" Is Bold Step Toward a Wired Windy City
ChicagoNet Sneak Preview
Internet 2: High-Speed Rails for InfoEngines
Tiananmen and Cybertribes

"Technopolis" Is Bold Step Toward a Wired Windy City

"Our vision is to wire all of Evanston with a high-speed fiber optics network that will open doors and draw new businesses . . . and link us together as an electronic village. We are . . . one step closer to the reality of that vision."

It's been a little more than a century now since Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, helped to popularize Chicago's nickname of the "Windy City."

New York and Chicago were competing to host the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Dana railed against the "nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not hold a world's fair even if they won it."

Much to Dana's dismay, the city "full of wind" got the nod and hosted the exposition and proved itself eminently capable of doing so.

That was the era of heavy industry, stockyards and slaughterhouses, railroads and rampant boosterism. This is the era of information....and boosterism.

But the Technopolis Evanston Project, from this vantage point on the old Great Northern Railway just city blocks from James J. Hill's mansion, looks like the real McCoy.

If all goes as its planners hope and expect, Technopolis will serve as a model for "ChicagoNet," a wired Windy City sometime early next century.

Chicago. From railway hub to electronic networking hub -- in the historical heartbeat of a hundred years.

One of the key planners is Patricia Widmayer, a special assistant to the Vice President for Information Technology at Northwestern University in Evanston. Widmayer sent me an e-mail message a few weeks ago letting me know about a number of networking initiatives she's directing or involved with in the Chicago area.

What prompted her message was my interactive U.S. map featuring "University-affiliated virtual and networked communities" in the so-called New Economy in which communications technologies are key. Colleagues had called her attention to the map, and she called my attention to her projects.

Technopolis Evanston is designed to "connect all residences, businesses, and organizations in the city to a high-speed network, supported by e-commerce development, education and training, and an electronic village," she wrote. "We expect it to be the demo for ChicagoNet."

Late last month, Evanston city officials named the development team that will wire the city, a team that includes the familiar telecoms Cisco Systems, NEC, and Siemens Building Technologies. The Chicago Tribune  reported that planners estimate the project's price tag will range "from under $10 million to about $25 million, depending upon the participation of AT&T, which owns rights to the cable TV service in Evanston."

The collaborative public-private venture will make available "high-speed fiber-optic network connections and bundled telecommunications services -- including video, voice, and data -- to every residence, business, institution and government office in the city," according to a press release.

Communications services such as Internet, intranet, cable TV, local and long distance telephone services, local network operation services, education and training, and e-commerce development will be offered through a proposed Technopolis Evanston Enterprise Corporation at "highly competitive rates."

"This is a unique strategy we are pursuing," Widmayer wrote to me. Technopolis "will be a model to replicate in many other cities since it is self supporting."

Planners expect Technopolis to be fully operational by the first quarter of 2000.

ChicagoNet Sneak Preview

Technopolis is a big step in the effort to transform the country's greatest railway center a century ago into a digital hub. Only this time the wheeling and dealing of railroad barons and financiers like Hill, Edward Harriman and J. P. Morgan gives way to planning commissions, public-private consortia and rapidly evolving technologies.

Last August, the Metropolitan Planning Commission of Chicago released its vision of a digital future: "Putting Our Minds Together: The Digital Network Infrastructure and Metropolitan Chicago." Northwestern's Widmayer is lead author of the report, and many of the school's faculty were involved in its development.

In an introductory letter, Illinois Senator Richard Durbin observes that his state "was created because of its agricultural potential, it grew to dynamic status because of transportation, and now that same opportunity exists through the development of new technologies."

Many states and communities are developing plans to take advantage of the communications revolution, but Chicago is well positioned to move forward. It has a major cluster of telecoms and related computer service and consulting companies. And it is the interconnection point for three high-performance digital networks:

  • The Metropolitan Research and Education Network (MREN)

  • NSF's very high-speed Backbone Network Service (vBNS), and

  • The NSF Science, Technology, and Research Transit Access Point (STAR TAP)

But Widmayer and her colleagues acknowledge that more than infrastructure will be required if Chicago is to be a leader in a digital future. The city will need to build and foster entrepreneurial communities; use technology to strengthen elementary and secondary education, higher education and workforce training; and work aggressively to mitigate the "digital divide" so that all the city's population groups, neighborhoods and communities have access to information-based resources, services and opportunities.

Thus the title of the report, "Putting Our Minds Together..."

Its conclusion counsels that leaders in business, education, government, and the local communities, together with citizens, "must PUT THEIR MINDS TOGETHER to examine the profound impact access to the digital network infrastructure will have on communities, work and home." They can formulate a research agenda to explore how such access will affect and determine the quality-of-life for Metropolitan Chicago.

If such planning preceded the deal-making of Hill, Harriman and Morgan a century ago, I'd like to know about it.

Internet 2: High-Speed Rails for InfoEngines

In his book The Future of Capitalism, MIT economist Lester Thurow reflects on growing up in Montana where his "flights of fancy" turned to the railroads, specifically the Great Northern's "Empire Builder." That train, rambling across the northern plains and over the Rockies on its way to Seattle, embodied James J. Hill's dream of building an empire out of empty space.

Today, Thurow writes, "there are no physical empires worth conquering." Today, it is intellectual and economic opportunity space that represents the mother lode of Hill's era. That space will house the "man-made brainpower industries of the future," industries closely tied to research universities and institutes.

A month ago I attended the University's Internet2 Day, one of some 15 such events held at universities around the country in recent months dedicated to building awareness of the high-tech initiative.

The University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID) or Internet 2 is a multimillion dollar collaborative effort by more than 130 U.S. universities to develop advanced Internet technology and applications for the research and education missions of higher education.

In a nutshell, Internet 2 promises three things:

  • higher bandwith, meaning greater access to media-rich content via bigger pipes

  • multicasting, or simultaneous information delivery to multiple parties, and

  • guaranteed delivery and performance, a fail-safe Quality-of-Service system

How fast is the Internet 2 network? By one account, it is some 50,000 times faster than the average modem. It could bring the entire Library of Congress into your PC in just 20 seconds if you were on it -- and, of course, if the library's holdings were digitally available and you had a big box at your end.

Internet 2 is also called the Abilene Network after a railroad founded in the 1860s in Kansas. The new data pipeline was used last February to demonstrate online surgery. An Ohio physician at Union Station in Washington, D.C. collaborated with an Ohio State University surgeon in Columbus doing a laparoscopic procedure on a patient. The former was able to comment on the procedure in real time.

I wonder how many lives would have been saved if such remote, real-time consulting and learning had been available a half-century ago, when open-heart surgery was being pioneered at the University of Minnesota Hospital.

At the U of M's Internet 2 day, Steve Cawley, Interim Associate VP and Chief Information Officer, gave an overview of what Internet 2 means for Minnesota.

Like other universities, we will use Internet 2 for constructing and accessing digital libraries, establishing collaborative environments, for telemedicine projects, and for distance education.

But that is just the beginning of how high-speed networks will transform research, teaching and learning. And no one knows the long-term benefits of being a "GigaPop" site.

In his Internet 2 Day remarks, University President Mark Yudof referred to a GigaPop as some sort of prolific sire. It's actually a "high-capacity 'point-of-presence' (POP) that will connect urban area networks, state networks, campuses, and labs at speeds up to 155 mbps (megabits per second) and higher."

GigaPops are gateways to Internet 2. Minnesota will be home to the "Northern Lights GigaPoP." Northern Lights will serve as the state's hub for Internet Service Providers and the State of Minnesota Learning Network.

Yudof noted that he was surprised to learn that an e-mail sent to someone across campus "travels 800 miles to get there" in the current network. That's because it is routed via Chicago. But no longer, once Northern Lights is operational.

In sum, "Internet2, and the extended benefits of the GigaPoP, and the local exchange point, will help facilitate global electronic business for everyone in the State while enhancing collaboration among all education institutions."

Tiananmen and Cybertribes

Of the leading print journalists, perhaps no one has embraced the Internet like Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times  and author of the book The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999].

In his column "Are You Ready" which appears in today's edition of the Times , Friedman writes that 1999 "will go down as the year that the Internet really began to penetrate the consciousness of Americans -- that the way they buy everything from cars to airline tickets, and the way they communicate, invest, work and learn, is being fundamentally transformed by the Web. But it has come on so fast that people are feeling overwhelmed by it."

Even his field of foreign affairs is caught up in the Web, he writes. "When I travel around America today, one of the most frequent foreign policy questions I get is about cyberspace."

Exactly 10 years ago today, renowned Times  journalist Harrison Salisbury was on board JAL flight #5 on his way to Tokyo, with Beijing his ultimate destination. A leading authority on 20th century Chinese history, Salisbury was on assignment with a Japanese film crew making a documentary on the fortieth anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Scientists would call it serendipity that he found himself in a hotel with a window on Tiananmen Square as student demonstrators were confronting government troops.

In a passage in his book Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June [Little Brown, 1989], Salisbury wrote:

    "I pulled out my trusty 1942 Remington portable and batted out an op-ed piece for the New York Times  in which I proclaimed an end to the Deng Xiaoping era of enlightenment and the opening of a new regime that would be run by the doctrine of 'authoritarianism' (which sounded suspiciously like that of Chiang Kaishek) and on the 'South Korean model' --both of which had been receiving a great deal of public attention and evaluation in recent months.

    I called Charlotte to tell her I had made it safely out of Beijing and then dictated my piece to New York as smoothly as if I had been in Connecticut. If I had had a portable computer I could have sent it that way. Extraordinary."

The good phone connection to New York and the mere idea that Salisbury could have wired his story to the Times via computer were indications that the global communication system was already making inroads into the practices of foreign correspondents, to say nothing of empowering democratic impulses in police states.

The decade between Salisbury then and Friedman now (both of them native Minnesotans) represents a changing of the guard in journalism if there ever was one. As I wrote in an earlier column, I once asked Salisbury if the computer chip and video screen would make the newspaper obsolete. That was January 1981. He responded: "If it happens, you and I won't live to see it."

Since that column, published last November, Knight-Ridder has moved its headquarters from Miami to San Jose, where it can home in on what's happening in Silicon Valley with its San Jose Mercury News property.

Today, a decade after Tiananmen, power is shifting from regimes, cartels and calcified bureaucracies to what Friedman calls "cybertribes" operating out of "hot zones." He describes what he means in The Lexus and the Olive Tree:

    "When you take one of these hot zones, equip it with the Internet and connect it with a diaspora community spread out all over the world -- such as overseas Chinese, Jews, Italians, Lebanese, Indians or Koreans -- you have what I like to call a 'cybertribe.' These cybertribes combine speed, creativity, entrepreneurial talent and global networking in ways that can generate enormous wealth."

Six months after Tiananmen, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. In Friedman's view, that event marks the break from a divided world to a united one without a center, a world symbolized by the World Wide Web, a world where no one is really in charge, where cybertribes operate freely.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was also a watershed event for research universities with their dependence on federal funding for defense-related science and engineering. Now they (we) have to deal with a transformational technology like the Web. And it won't get any easier to keep up.

As Friedman predicts, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

    --William Hoffman

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.

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The Doric Column



Universities are intricately involved in emerging high-tech and community electronic networks in the New Economy.