Scientists and academics in Central Asia
and the Southern Caucasus will soon be able to make
substantially more effective use of the internet, as a
result of the largest and most ambitious project to have
been sponsored by the NATO Science Programme to date.
Called the Virtual Silk Highway - a
reference to the Great Silk Road which used to link
Europe to the Far East, promoting the exchange of both
goods and of knowledge and ideas - the project is aimed
at facilitating computer networking and internet access
the academic and scientific communities of eight countries in the
Southern Caucasus and Central Asia. Internet connectivity is
regarded as the most effective way to access and release
the potential of the region's many highly educated scientists
"This project is unique,"
says Walter Kaffenberger, the Science Programme's director
for computer networking, "due to the number of
countries involved, the fact that they span two geographic
regions and the high level of investment."
In total, $2.5 million will be devoted
to the project over four years. This represents 40 per
cent of the Science Programme's computer-networking
budget and is the largest investment in a single project
in the programme's 44-year history.
The need for connectivity is particularly
acute in the scientific and academic communities of
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Southern Caucasus
and Kazakhstan, the Kyrghyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan
and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. These countries lie
on the fringes of the European internet arena and their
level of development is such that they will not be able
to afford fibre-optic connections in the foreseeable
The alternative is internet connection
via satellite. However, this is expensive. As a result,
the bandwidth available for the entire region's research
and educational communities ranges from 64 to 384 kilobits/second
(Kbps) per country. This compares with an average home
internet connection in Western Europe of at least 56
Kbps, which is rising fast with the growth of broadband
The Virtual Silk Highway will connect
the scientific and academic communities of participating
countries to the internet via a common satellite beam.
Cost-effective, state-of-the-art satellite technology
will increase the average bandwidth for each country
to three megabits/second and allow access to the unused
bandwidth of any other participating country. Modern
data-caching techniques will collect all information
requested from the web and make it available to other
network users without having to go though the satellite
connection, further increasing the network's efficiency.
The NATO grant will buy satellite bandwidth and finance
the purchase and installation of nine satellite dishes
using the so-called VSAT technology - eight small ones
linked to a large dish in Hamburg, Germany, which will
serve as the European hub. Other co-sponsors are contributing
Cisco Systems is donating equipment,
worth around $400,000, which will be attached to each
earth station. Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron, which
has a long history of working with the particle physics
communities in these countries, is providing services
valued at $350,000 related to hosting the European hub
and operating the network.
Deutsche Forschungs Netz will ensure
that the network is connected to the European Union's
huge pan-European Gigabit research network, GEANT, which
in turn is linked up to other research networks around
the world — a service valued at $125,000.
GEANT is not charging for international
bandwidth and EurasiaSat is providing bandwidth at special
tariffs. The network is expected to be fully up-and-running
by October 2002.
"The priority now," says Dr
Kaffenberger, "is to ensure that this unique project is viable
and self-sustaining in the long-term, once NATO
funding runs out in 2004. Proper project-management structures
and new sources of finance will be essential."
Since NATO's Science Programme is only
able to finance infrastructure construction, EU funding
is now being sought to help set up appropriate project-management
structures and procedures, with the aim of progressively
transferring as much management and know-how as possible
to the participating countries.
NATO is supporting the establishment
of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs)
in each participating country with a mandate to take
care of national networking needs of their educational
and scientific establishments. Such NRENs could take
on the role of raising funds nationally.
Contacts are also being made with organisations
that may be interested in paying a fee to use the network
system. These include the United Nations Development
Programme, which is active in developing the connectivity
of governments and non-governmental organisations in
the region, and the Soros Foundation, which seeks to
promote democracy through connectivity.
During the past decade, the NATO Science
Programme has sought to sustain the scientific communities
of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which
have seen their budgets slashed in the wake of the collapse
of the Eastern bloc. Since 1994, one way to further
this aim has been to promote local networking between
academic and scientific institutions by helping set
up the appropriate infrastructure and organising workshops.
Once local networks and infrastructure were in place,
it was important to ensure basic and reliable internet
connectivity to facilitate research and contacts with
the global scientific community.