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Internet2 through the Founders' eyes: The Past, Present, and Future of the Community

Jun 01, 2016, by Elizabeth Boten
Tags: 2016 Global Summit, Events

By Asmaa Abumezied

I have been at Internet2, and in the U.S., for eight months now. I couldn't have chosen a better time to join Internet2 for this is a time of reflection, especially as it is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

As a foreigner and a person who barely scratched the surface of Internet2's long history, I was listening to a workshop called "20th Anniversary Retrospective" which took place on May 16th, 2016 at Internet2 Global Summit in Chicago. Doug Van Houweling Internet2's first CEO and founder started the session with a statement "Internet2 is about the community; so I want to let the community speak about Internet2."

Although I heard such statements everywhere while working at Interent2 especially when asking about Internet2's future plans; I couldn't actually see or understand it fully. However, while sitting in this session, listening to the speakers, I slowly began to understand, despite all the technical jargon spoken which I had no clue what they meant especially for someone coming from economic development background.

The more I learn about Internet2, the more I understand the sense of community and history, and bright future of the organization. Internet2 started in a small conference room in the basement at the O'Hare Hilton in Chicago, where the founders, around 40 people, gathered to talk about an idea, a need, and maybe a new adventure. As I listened to this story unfold in the session, more people started joining the stage to talk about Interent2 and how their paths crossed; some even joked about not being in the room by repeating "I wasn't in the room, however I wanted to be involved" as people recounted their memories.

I realized that it wasn't just "The Founders" in the room, rather that the germ of an idea of the founders extends to much more than the people in the room. It extends to believers, employees, supporters and people who "volunteered for nothing but decided to do something" at universities across the U.S. People shared their memories before the founding of Internet2, times from 1982, 1993, 1996; during the founding of Internet2 and after that. To me, this illustrated how evolved Internet2 is and how contagious a sense of excitement in the community could be with more and more people joining along the journey.

Bill Decker described the beginning idea of internet2 as "an opportunity to connect more universities, tap economic value, and act as mediation among universities." To others in the room, it was about taking the networks to a higher level by creating a national fabric that is created and managed by universities. It was about spreading innovative local best practices to other universities to unleash potentials on a national level through research collaboration as described by Glen Ricart. It was about staying on top of the network rather than supporting it.

As the journey down memory lane progressed, Ron Johnson described the growth of Internet2 and summarized the value of Internet2 in three points. First, to him, Internet2 became a "community of interest" where researchers and universities meet, exchange and learn new things from each other. Secondly and thirdly, it acts as "Introduction facilitator" connecting different ends and people together to scale up their efforts, as well as a place where "results of doing things" are manifested.

A true reflection for these points was shared by Marilyn McMillan from NYU regarding the first distributed musical production staged on Internet2's network between NYU and Boston; which was a forty-minute Jazz production spanning distance, time and different tech platforms. It was through the rehearsals that challenges of the last mile were discovered, challenges experienced by both NYU and Boston, and through the collaboration facilitated by Internet2 that such challenges were addressed and a standing ovation performance was delivered.

What I found the most fascinating in the session was the behind the scene glimpses that were shared. Pictures of cable wrapping, thinking outside the box to remove a machine on a university van and bringing chairs and food to install fibers makes you think how Internet2 also extend beyond the community to the people who work there. These views exhibited the hard work, the evolution, the experimentation and fun of working for this community.

As the session unfolded, I appreciated the peek into the past and glimpse to what the future may encompass. Twenty years is the perfect time for Internet2 and the community to reflect and ask difficult questions; or as stated by Tracy Futhey "this is the time for us to keep pushing Internet2 and for us to engage in a real and serious debate of where the future is heading."

Through the eyes of an outsider, it is also the time and opportunity to evaluate and shape new visions or strategies to answer questions such as "How can the community work together to bring higher education to the forefront of future technology and advancement?", "How Internet2 can adapt its values and messages to the future challenges?" and "Where does the higher education community fit in the fourth industrial revolution? And how can we (higher education) ensure we have a seat at the table?" And perhaps the most important question: "How will we continue, in the tradition of Internet2 to address all of those things together?"