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Digital Nation

Consortium Sets Sights on a 'New Internet'

April 05, 2001|GARY CHAPMAN | gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu

As the PC industry falters and attention shifts to new mobile computing devices such as hand-held computers and Internet-enabled phones, a new Southern California research consortium is setting up to ride the next wave of the Internet economy.

The California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, abbreviated as Cal(IT)2 (http://www.calit2.net), launched last December, has raised about $300 million for the next four years and has a very ambitious agenda.

A "virtual collaboration" of UC San Diego in La Jolla, UC Irvine and private-sector partners, Cal(IT)2 has its sights on developing a "new Internet" built on high-speed wireless networks and computing devices. The research program was jump-started late last year by a $100-million contribution from the state when Gov. Gray Davis announced the new venture. An additional $140 million came from industry partners, and $60 million came from individual donors and the two UC campuses.

Cal(IT)2 is directed by Larry Smarr, a founding director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During Smarr's stint in Illinois, several of today's basic Internet technologies were developed there. Smarr is now a professor of computer science and engineering at UC San Diego.

His vision is for Cal(IT)2 to extend the Internet into its next phase, beyond the PC and wired connections, and to build what he calls "the Grid," a complex but seamless network of high-speed wireless nodes that are cheap, prolific, always on and accessed through a variety of technologies. These new devices will include not only palm-size computers and telephones but sensors, processors embedded in physical objects, and perhaps even microprocessors inside human beings--doctors might eventually be able to monitor cardiac patients all the time, wherever they are, for example.

Cal(IT)2 will begin its work with projects such as wireless networks to monitor the state's environment, artificial intelligence doing "data mining" of immense databases, and research on intelligent transportation systems, such as roadside sensors that collect data from passing vehicles and report traffic patterns to computers in those vehicles.

Getting all the various technologies to work together reliably and securely is a daunting challenge and beyond the capabilities of any single company, Smarr says. That's the role of Cal(IT)2, he argues--to facilitate research and development in technologies five to 10 years ahead of the current market.

Smarr and his colleagues, several of whom are veterans of fabled Bell Labs, think the technology corridor between Irvine and San Diego is likely to take off in the next decade, especially because of the Internet's expected transition to wireless networks. Sorrento Valley just north of downtown San Diego is already known as "Wireless Valley" because of the presence of Qualcomm, Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and more than 400 other telecommunications firms. Qualcomm was founded in 1985 by former engineering professors from UC San Diego.

Of course, the sagging financial performance of these companies in recent months--most telecom companies are shedding thousands of jobs now--suggests Cal(IT)2's mission is a gamble.

No one is sure that consumers or businesses will be willing to pay for development of a new and as yet untested network of wireless devices and services. Smarr says the economic slowdown has not affected Cal(IT)2's prospects. "These companies can't afford to cut back on the one thing that will bring them back to peak performance, which is R&D," he said.

Cal(IT)2 leaders are hoping they are building what's needed for the San Diego-Irvine corridor to gain momentum with Silicon Valley in the decades ahead. Smarr points out that the history of technology-led regional economies is one of ascendance and then decline, and he and others think there are signs that the halcyon days of the PC revolution are over for Silicon Valley.

"I've seen this movie a number of times," Smarr said of the shifting fortunes of technologies and regional economies. In his new movie, however, the chips now being bet on for wireless and ubiquitous computing will pay off big for Southern California.

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Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

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