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BURIED BESIDE the New York State Thruway, multicolored tubes lie in darkness, waiting to light up New York's economy.

The tubes -- orange, green, brown, black, white and blue -- run for 542 miles between New York City and Buffalo. They're the state's newest superhighway, one of the nation's most sophisticated fiber optics networks.

The subterranean system could help New York attract jobs, scholars and grant money, as well as enhance the abilities of business and government, says a group of economic developers, technology specialists and business leaders.

They say the network will give New York an edge in expanding its high-technology and research industries.

Particular beneficiaries will be a group of colleges, including the University at Buffalo. The schools are eager to use the system to help them conduct research projects, share expensive diagnostic equipment and compete for research funds.

State officials expect that the data highway will let government give businesses a break by cutting down on some of the duplicative corporate filings required by state and local agencies. Plus, the system will trim millions of dollars in telecommunications costs from the state government's overhead.

During the past year, workers with MFS Network Technologies of Omaha unraveled huge spools of tubing, inserted the tubes into the earth and filled them with fiber optics wire. The work should be done in November. Users will begin zapping data along the network by year's end.

What MFS is creating, enthusiasts say, is akin to the Erie Canal or the railroads in earlier eras.

"By installing this capability, it will clearly put New York State ahead of the pack," says Hinrich Martens, University at Buffalo information technology executive. "That will put us in a strong position to develop economic activity and attract jobs; it's a very desirable and key infrastructure requirement for modern commerce."

Each of the six tubes inserted beneath the ground by MFS will hold 96 fibers, the equivalent of several highways worth of connections for super-quick data transport.

Soon data will travel faster than ever between state agencies, local governments, private companies and schools leasing the fiber. In addition, transmissions will be free of interruption, allowing for the data to travel quickly with video and audio signals as passengers.

The typical Internet data transmission travels at 56,000 bits per second and some links can move data at 20 million bits per second. The MFS system will send data at 155 to 622 million bits per second.

MFS is investing about $130 million to build the network from New York City to Cleveland. Six companies already have leased 60 percent of the fiber network. They're big long-distance telephone companies such as IXC Carrier, Intermedia Communications and Fonorola.

Banks, insurance companies and other businesses also will likely buy space, MFS officials say.

The state Thruway Authority is getting a link for free as part of the deal that gave MFS the right to install the system.

Plus, the authority will get a cut of some of the revenues MFS takes in.

The Thruway Authority expects to save $500,000 to $2 million annually in telecommunications costs as it uses the fiber optics network for its electronic toll EZ-Pass system, traveler information messages and for other communications needs, said Cynthia Munk, a spokeswoman.

"It provides a level of connectivity that's never before existed," said MFS president Kevin Moersch. The system will allow for audio and video conferences from remote sites, facilitating long-distance learning, tele-medicine and research collaborations.

The state will lease some of its fiber to the New York State Networking Technologies for Education and Research, or NYSERNET, the not-for-profit organization that built the Internet in New York state.

NYSERNET officials have organized NYSERNET 2000, an initiative to tap into the MFS network to create a more powerful system for research universities across the state.

The Syracuse-based NYSERNET has gotten 21 universities and research institutions to join in paying for the new system, assuring them passage on the best data highway available, said Gary Crane, acting director of NYSERNET.

NYSERNET itself is committing $1.6 million to the project and is seeking public and private investment as well.

UB is part of the group that will pay for construction of the high-speed network. The university will pay about $500,000 per year to be part of the NYSERNET 2000 network, Martens said.

The school will need to replace its electronic routing and switching gear and pay for a tie-in to the MFS terminal at the Donovan State Office Building downtown.

The system later will link with the proposed Internet 2, a nationwide system for research universities that will be connected to the National Science Foundation's extremely high-speed network.

The NYSERNET 2000 program is desired by researchers who want links that won't cause data to be delayed or interrupted. The traditional Internet can be congested and unreliable, researchers say.

"The present system is just not adequate for moving large quantities of data," said Ernest Sibert, director of UB's computer sciences programs.

UB needs high-speed data transfer to be competitive with schools seeking top students, faculty and research contracts, Martens said. For instance, he said, UB has about a dozen research projects involving movement of great quantities of data.

One, called CEDAR -- Center for Document Analysis and Recognition -- is funded by the U.S. Postal Service and involves developing high-speed letter processing.

Martens said besides the university, several high-technology and telecommunications businesses, such as call centers, could benefit from the fiber optics network. The system could serve as another tool to economic developers trying to woo new companies to the region, he said.

The medical research at UB and elsewhere in Buffalo should benefit from the system, NYSERNET's Crane said.

For instance, imaging machines at Brookhaven National Labs on Long Island could be used by connecting to the labs via the NYSERNET 2000 system, he said. Cancer researchers in Buffalo could tap into the equipment without having to buy it, he said. Using the current Internet, Crane said, the image could break up. But NYSERNET 2000 users would be able to reserve time on the network for important projects.

Also, he said, digital libraries could be created and used over the system. The libraries would be repositories for still and moving images that could be used in classrooms.

Cameron Thomas, director of the Governor's Office for Technology, said the state wants to use the fiber system to set up a network between and among state and local governments. "Right now we have different networks," she said.

With one shared by all, various public agencies could share the same data "so we don't collect the same information over and over and over again." That means, she said, if a business interacts with government, it won't have to file duplicative records with a series of agencies.

"That cable going across the state is going to give us a physical connection," said Joseph Magno, executive director of the state Science & Technology Foundation, who says the fiber network eventually should attract industry.

"It's like buying a bird cage, even if you don't have a bird," he said. "Sooner or later you're going to have a bird. That fiber optic network is our bird cage."

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