Japanese alliance targets multimedia

Japanese alliance targets multimedia

Paul Mortensen

To develop connectivity between national and private research laboratories in Japan and to speed the nation`s application of multimedia, an alliance formed by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., academic institutions and 127 private companies has launched three series of fiber-based multimedia experiments that use asynchronous transfer mode technology.

Recent budgets of the Ministry of Education and the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology have identified the experimental goals: ATM is forecasted as the best switching technology for handling future multimedia applications. Both ministries have, therefore, more than doubled available funding this year for connecting networks at national university laboratories with those at the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology-controlled institutes. The paramount trend involves opening, for the first time, communications between laboratories controlled by different government ministries.

Groups of bureaucrats at the two ministries realize that if Japan wants to maintain and further its high-technology research objectives, current telecommunications interconnections between key national laboratories must be upgraded even if they are funded by different ministries.

To date, Japan has no high-bandwidth academic network comparable to the National Science Foundation Network in the United States, which connects the NSF supercomputing centers. In Japan, most supercomputers support only local access.

Still, Japanese academic institutions have made strides. In 1988, they set up the widely integrated distributed environment network to serve as a backbone for all Japanese academic networks and as a test bed for integrated services digital network and open systems interconnection studies. The network runs coaxial lines at 64 kilobits per second. It serves approximately 2000 users, but is hardly considered progressive.

In a bid to achieve national success, the alliance has planned joint utilization tests to establish an academic network using ATM-based architectures comparable to those being operated in U.S. and European test beds. The Japanese private sector is mainly interested in developing new business opportunities in multimedia applications.

NTT`s stake in hosting the tests is to examine the feasibility of the new multimedia services that the company should or will offer. To ensure the ultimate promotion of these services, NTT is offering use of its network at no charge. It is thus providing developers and users the consummate opportunity to conduct ATM feasibility studies.

Private-company interest in the joint tests surpassed NTT`s expectations: Approximately 400 groups at institutions and companies applied for participation. From these entries, 127 groups were selected. These groups will be conducting their own experiments--testing broadband fiber-optic network and cable-TV video transmission tests.

Initial series

The first proposed tests will deal with high-speed computer communications. They will involve inter-local area network communications and large-capacity file transfers using NTT`s broadband fiber backbone running at 2.4 to 10 gigabits per second. The backbone network will serve as an experimental platform in which member partners will simulate the network as a virtual private-leased line. It will consist of 10 terminal stations connected by 156-megabit-per-second lines. The majority of participants are national institutes or universities, such as the University of Tokyo, Osaka University, National Cancer Center and Communications Research Laboratory. They are interested in improving their campus LANs and constructing wide area networks using ATM technology.

The National Cancer Center, for example, will be linked to hospitals nationwide to provide high-definition television images of microscope photographs. Doctors are expected to develop diagnostic procedures that rely on artificial intelligence and to transmit formulated operations using virtual reality images generated by the center`s supercomputer.

What has prompted interest among national universities is a supplementary budget totaling nearly 30 billion yen they received in 1994 from the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture to upgrade their campus LANs. This budget reflects the key role universities are projected to play in the government`s plan to establish a nationwide telecommunications infrastructure.

The National Center for Science Information Systems will coordinate some important experiments. It provides a nationwide academic computer network known as the Science Information Network that connects approximately 400 users at universities, national and municipal research facilities, and major corporate laboratories.

All the participants are seeking to establish technologies and applications for high-speed ATM networks. The national center will examine a variety of routing protocols, including transmission protocols, traffic pattern control algorithms for virtual path capacity control, data flow control and traffic shaping. It will also be experimenting with an integrated LAN management system by using the simple network management protocol and the common management interface protocol. Possible applications will include the creation of an electronic library of academic papers and a digital photo library.

To conduct these experiments, the National Center for Science Information Systems and NTT have interconnected a network with the University of Tokyo`s Institute of Industrial Science, Waseda University`s School of Science and Engineering and NTT`s Telecommunication Network Laboratories. The center has allocated a budget of 120 million yen per year during the five-year project.

An expected by-product of these experiments should be an increased demand for ATM switches and routers, thereby strengthening the resolve of Japanese manufacturers to catch up with foreign competition. At this time, however, most of the ATM devices installed by the national center are being purchased from U.S. vendors, such as hubs from Fore Systems and routers from Cisco Systems. Japanese makers are beginning to manufacture improved ATM hubs, but their development of routers is still considered weak.

Second series

The second series of experiments using NTT`s high-speed broadband backbone network intends to identify business opportunities for the private sector. This April, 111 groups, including such companies as Sharp Corp., Toshiba Corp., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Mazda Motor Corp. and Reuters Japan Ltd., will start exploring such multimedia services as virtual showrooms, virtual laboratories for joint design work, news-on-demand and electronic publishing. Partners can determine experiment specifications depending on the application; lines will be available for 56 and 600 Mbits/sec and 1.5 Gbits/sec.

The third test series, also scheduled for this April, concerns cable-TV experiments to be conducted by three cable-TV operators in the Kanto area. They will use NTT`s network to explore video-on-demand and cable telephony using an optical subscriber method over a passive double-star network. The experiment for video-on-demand services will be accomplished by linking the set-top boxes to the network via an optical subscriber line network system and an optical subscriber line terminal system.

These tests relate to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications` new guidelines for cable TV. Cable operators must obtain a Type 1 telecommunications carrier license, and networks must interconnect with telecommunications operators under fair conditions that are mutually agreed upon through discussions.

Paul Mortensen writes from Tokyo

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