June 29, 1999 Writer: Cathy Keen
Sources: Sean Gorman -- (215)765-3199, Spg1x@aol.com
Edward Malecki -- (352) 392-0496, firstname.lastname@example.org
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Even as the hype portrays the Internet as a tool that will level the economic playing fields for big cities and small towns, the virtual reality is that a few select cities will get the lion's share of the information action, a new University of Florida study finds.
Although catchy ads show people linked from remote cabins, the need for reliable connections is clustering the Internet in core cities while rural locations lag further behind, said Sean Gorman, a UF graduate student in geography who did the research for his dissertation.
"There is this notion with the Internet that you can locate anywhere and still be connected," Gorman said. "Although everyone can get connected, not everyone is connected equally."
Better service and faster connections in the select cities are likely to drive business and job location -- and ultimately economic growth -- in the Information Age, he said.
In the first study of its kind to examine how geography affects the Internet, Gorman found a distinct hierarchy of cities for Internet infrastructure. The first tier of San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago was much better connected than the second-level cities of Atlanta, New York and Dallas. The third tier consisted of Phoenix, Cleveland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Mo. and Houston, and the fourth is Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit, Miami, Jacksonville and Orlando, he said.
One result is that the Internet has become like the airline industry, with a few hub cities getting the fastest and most direct connections, Gorman said.
"No longer merely a public infrastructure, the Internet has become a real battleground for several large corporations," said UF geography professor Edward J. Malecki, who supervised the research. "Sean's is the first work to apply network analysis to the Internet in this way."
"If you're just sending e-mails back and forth and doing some occasional Web browsing, it's not going to affect you too much," Gorman said. "But if you're locating a corporation in South Dakota or Montana to take advantage of cheap labor and land, it will be impossible to keep pace with your competitors in places like suburban Washington, D.C., or the Silicon Valley.
"Even though you're dealing with milliseconds, it really does make a big difference with some of these high-speed applications," he said. "When you have to take a series of hops through places with little capacity or connections and you get a lot of traffic and congestion, you begin losing packets and they have to be retransmitted."
A message sent on the Internet between the University of Florida in Gainesville and The Tampa Tribune, for example, makes six hops, traveling through Jacksonville, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Orlando before finally reaching Tampa. In contrast, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- thousands of miles farther apart from each other than Gainesville and Tampa -- have direct links with each other, he said.
There also are more than a dozen Internet transmission lines connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles but only a few between Jacksonville and Orlando, said Gorman, who did the research by compiling data from networks and provider maps into a series of matrices. These multiple links are critical because when one line becomes congested or fails, traffic can be rerouted instantly to another, he said.
"If you just have one link and a backhoe hits the line or a power outage occurs -- which happens frequently and is a huge fear of companies and network providers -- it's all over for you," Gorman said. "You can't run your Web site. You can't run your business. It's completely blacked out."
The Internet has become so essential to today's businesses it's relied upon for even the most routine things, from directly connecting suppliers and distributors to making goods more available to customers, Gorman said. And with companies such as IBM airing commercials on television saying geography doesn't matter and business magazines touting the benefits of the Internet, companies are under a great deal of pressure to use it, he said.
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