MCI WorldCom is to supply all 800 UK higher and further educational facilities with a £50m high-speed network capable of delivering multimedia applications to students over the internet.
SuperJanet 4, the latest version of the private Joint Academic Network (Janet), was described today as "fundamental to what this country can become", by Michael Wills, the Minister for Learning and Technology, who endorsed the signing of the contract between WorldCom and the United Kingdom Education & Research Networking Association (Ukerna).
The network is being funded by the Higher Education Funding Council, which has allocated up to £50m between April 1999 and March 2002 for its development. The initial 2.5Gbps core network will go live in December this year, with all universities expected to be using it by March 2001.
A series of upgrades over the next two years are planned to further speed up SuperJanet 4 into a 20Gbps network by the summer of 2002. Observers predict that the technology will spread from academia into commercial applications within a few years of its operations, boosting the speed of the internet.
Wills said it was a significant day for broadband technology, and UK academic institutions and technology. He also said the network would help deliver the government's Lifelong Learning initiative, which aims to promote distance learning.
Research programmes said to be boosted by the new network include genetic mapping, global warming, social surveys, astronomy, engineering and particle physics as well as areas where video technologies can be used, such as medical teaching.
By the time it has completed, Ukerna says the network will allow all educational institutions to wire their campus buildings, including university residences. The group's aim is for each desktop user to have at least a 1Mbpsconnection to Janet, and thus the internet, by summer 2002.
"We've planned for a rapid expansion of the user base and in multimedia applications such as video and music to be delivered over the web. SuperJanet 4 will provide the bandwidth needed to enable both the learning and research processes," said Bob Day, network development director at Ukerna.
The extra bandwidth will come as a welcome relief for network managers at some UK universities who have watched internet use boom, and their network capacity shrink, thanks to developments in music-compression and file sharing technologies such as MP3 and Napster. However, traffic management will become a more important issue than ever once video starts streaming off the internet and into lecturers' lesson plans.
WorldCom beat off BT, Cable & Wireless Communications, Global Crossing, Norweb, ntl and Thus to win the contract.
"This is a significant contract for us both in financial terms and through the strong links it allows us to create with UK academia," said Lucy Woods, senior vice president of European operations at WorldCom.
"Academics and researchers demand operational technology and drive forward development," she added.
The news comes less than a month after the European Commission unveiled plans for a £125m upgrade to the research network among leading European academic institutions scheduled for 2001. The UK part of the European Union network may run within SuperJanet 4.
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