Three levels of network infrastructure comprise the whole of the Internet - Local Area Networks, Metropolitan Area Networks and Wide Area Networks.

Local Area Networks

The Local Area Network (LAN) is that portion of the network to which most computers are connected, and therefore it is the most familiar part of the Internet. The speed of a typical LAN has grown from 10 million bits per second (Mbps) to 100 Mbps in recent years, and new hardware is now allowing expansion to a billion bits per second (1 Gbps). In practical terms, this means that a low-cost LAN has the capacity to provide access to any service provided by machines on that LAN.

The question then becomes how far that LAN reaches, since its scope, the more resources it is likely to have available. Information Renaissance has worked to develop architectures that extend the reach of a user's LAN and encourage the sharing of local resources.

Specifically, Info Ren's "Smart Building" project created a shared network environment in Pittsburgh's Regional Enterprise Tower, a building donated by the Alcoa Corporation for the use of nonprofit organizations working towards economic development. The building's tenants share a common high-speed Internet connection. Within the building, resource sharing is enabled through a fiber optic backbone, with individual firewalls providing security for each organization within the building. This design permits every organization in the building to enjoy the same level of peak Internet access, while paying only for that portion of the external bandwidth actually used. The cost for this type of service is an order of magnitude lower than it would be if each organization were to purchase the service separately from some external Internet service provider.

Metropolitan Area Networks

The concept of a Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) is less familiar than a LAN: for most people the MAN is invisible or is a weak point of their Internet connection. MAN infrastructure was first provided by dialup access over conventional telephone lines. More recently telephone companies have offered higher speed connections via technologies such as ISDN or DSL, both of which use standard copper wiring to a home or office. Competing with these services are cable modem connections offered by cable television companies over their coaxial cable infrastructure.

DSL and cable modems represent efforts of incumbent telecommunications companies to provide Internet service over an infrastructure that was designed and deployed for a very different purpose. It is therefore not surprising that these technologies have many built-in limitations in both availability and cost. Information Renaissance worked as a pioneer in the use of these technologies. More recently, we have sought technologies that are better suited to providing high-speed Internet access, including both fiber optic cabling and new wireless technologies.

Info Ren believes that future MAN infrastructure should be designed and deployed by municipalities in much the way they design and deploy streets, water and sewer systems. That is, this infrastructure should reach everyone, should be designed for economies of scale and should be maintained as a public utility. This ideal may be hard to reach, given the political power of the incumbent service providers, their dependence on expensive legacy facilities and the reluctance of municipal government to assume responsibility for new services. Nonetheless there are many steps that cities and towns can take in this direction, such as to encourage the installation of conduit when city streets are built or rebuilt, and to plan municipal telecommunications with an eye toward shared infrastructure.

Groups of organizations can also create their own network infrastructure. Wireless technologies require access to towers or rooftops for the placement of antennas, but they do not involve digging up streets or stringing wires on utility poles. This makes it possible to deploy wireless networks very quickly and at a cost much lower than that of wired infrastructure. In recent years the speeds of such services have lept far ahead of services provided over copper wire (including ISDN, DSL and cable modems), and their cost has plummeted.

Info Ren is working with community groups in Pittsburgh to form a cooperative that will manage a city-wide wireless network. As with the Smart Building project, members will enjoy shared access to a common Internet connection, high-speed access to resources on the wireless network, shared user support and very low monthly fees. Indeed, the working model of this network is to provide performance equal to that of a Local Area Network, but across the broader region of a Metropolitan Area Network.

Wide Area Networks

The Wide Area Network (WAN) refers to that part of the Internet that extends beyond one's own community. For most users it is harder to influence the structure and operation of this larger network. Yet some aspects of local network performance may depend upon the way in which one's MAN is connected to the WAN infrastructure. Local interconnections are a key issue here. Many Internet providers prefer to carry traffic on their own networks as far as possible and provide interconnections with other carriers at their own convenience. This can lead to bizarre situations in which network traffic from one side of a street to the other may travel hundreds of miles across ten different states before reaching its destination. People typically discover these situations when their network service is slow and unreliable. Information Renaissance seeks to inform those we work with of network design issues of this sort and help them select Internet providers capable of providing the best service at the lowest possible cost.