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Consortium to develop information highway

AT&T, Digital Equipment Corporation and MIT have formed a precompetitive consortium on wideband (high-capacity) all-optical networks-high-speed "information highways."

The Wideband All-Optical Networks Consortium will address the challenges of using the evolving high capability of optical-fiber technology to enhance the national information infrastructure, adding a "super-highway" that will provide flexible transport, common conventions and common servers.

Such an enhancement would allow access by multi-gigabit (billion-bit)-per-second computer networks and would transport their combined data streams, reaching terabits (trillions of bits) per second of capacity.

The consortium, which will receive $8.4 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), will study the architecture of all-optical networks, advance the relevant technology and construct an extensive test-bed system.

AT&T, Digital and MIT have had longstanding interests and demonstrated commitments in communications, networks and optics. Each brings with it a substantial research and development program in networks and/or optical communications. By working together, sharing expertise and resources, consortium members say they expect to speed the development of high-performance information highways.

"The test-bed will form a proof-of-concept demonstration of a universal, scalable, optical network and will provide a common forum in which the interactions of applications, architecture, and technologies may be investigated," said Vincent W.S. Chan, consortium director and leader of the MIT team. Dr. Chan is also associate head of MIT Lincoln Laboratory's Communications Division.

"Our long-term goal is to pursue the research and development of the technology, architecture and applications necessary to build such a network," he said. "Our more immediate goal is to determine how these challenges can best be met and to demonstrate that capability in a manner that can be further developed, engineered and produced by this country's communications and computer industries."

The test-bed will provide a near "real-world" environment in which network hardware, terminal equipment, protocols, algorithms and services can be rapidly developed, tested and demonstrated.

Alan Kirby, who heads the Digital team, said, "We envision this project being an important step toward providing a very high-performance, flexible network infrastructure that will result in a whole new generation of exciting applications." Mr. Kirby is Digital's Networks Engineering Advanced Development Manager. "In addition to making these new applications economically feasible, the new networks will support existing networking applications and technologies," he said.

In an all-optical network, information is transmitted in optical form from source to final destination, rather than being converted to electronic form for regeneration and switching along the way. All-optical techniques are expected to provide the framework for a large variety of wideband services in more flexible and cost-effective way than can be provided by today's optical networks.

The leader of the AT&T team, Adel A. M. Saleh, said, "The three institutions that are members of the consortium represent a vertically integrated organization with expertise well suited for research and development of wideband optical networks. American global competitiveness in this area is very important and we plan to report to US industry on technological advances by the consortium." Mr. Saleh is head of the AT&T Bell Laboratories Interconnection Research Department.

The grant is jointly managed at DARPA by Bertrum Hui, Defense Science Office, Paul Mockapetris, Computing Systems Technology Office, and Andy Yang, Microelectronics Technology Office.

Mr. Yang said, "The test-bed will not only demonstrate the functional feasibility of this network concept but also test the effectiveness of consortia in fostering technology transfer from laboratory to marketplace."

A version of this article appeared in the March 3, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 24).

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