ORION and Merit Network, Ontario and Michigan research and educational networks, have signed what they hailed Tuesday as an historic agreement to link arms across

the Canada-U.S. border.

The groups said this is the first time research and educational networks in an individual state or province have paired up to “”make the borders a little less visible,”” said Jennifer Wolf, manager of dedicated connections for Merit of Ann Arbor, Mich.

On a national level, Canada’s CANARIE, whose mission is to foster advanced Internet development in the country, has worked with American counterparts like Internet 2.

The incentive behind the agreement is to bolster research partnerships among major institutions like universities and hospitals in Ontario and Michigan, said Toronto-based Ontario Research Innovation and Optical Network (ORION) president Phil Baker.

The work could include “”anything from biomedical to high-speed physics research,”” said Wolf. For instance, she said, Michigan and Canada both have remote areas in which health care may be comprised of smaller organizations without many specialists.

“”So there’s telemedicine applications where the remote agencies are able to connect to the larger facilities in the cities for second opinions or for specialists who allow them to reach their patients.””

During a one-day summit held by Merit and ORION in Toronto, there were also talks with supporters of GTAnet, a Toronto-based research and educational network, about working on genomics projects together.

Toronto has the single largest concentration of university-related hospitals in North America and is an international collaboration site for the second generation of genomics research, Wolf said.

The new partnership allows Ontario and Michigan to connect their networks in the Windsor-Detroit area and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. for what Baker calls “”back-up diversity.”” In other words, they can swap capacity and essentially establish fibre-optic rings that avoid the problems of cut lines on a linear network caused by a backhoe, he said.

Setting up a “”peering relationship”” permits Merit and ORION to exchange data without charging each other, Wolf added. “”Whereas, if we had to go through a commodity Internet provider, it would cost more money for each organization.””

ORION, which got off the ground a year ago, will forge similar ties with Quebec within six weeks and hopes to do the same with New York over the next few months. Its network with Merit will connect across the border at Windsor-Detroit sometime this year, and in Sault Ste. Marie in 2005.

The long-term impact of the agreement will position Ontario and Michigan as key players in advanced research and educational networking, said Baker. “”Let’s think of a broader regional cluster that strengthens all of us. That’s what we’re about.””

Baker said this type of comprehensive activity is already happening. For instance, Ontario is in the midst of setting up the Discovery District, or MaRS project (Medical and Related Sciences), to bring together life sciences, technology and similar disciplines within a span of two-square kilometres in the heart of downtown Toronto.

Across the border, the U.S. government is funding a major bioinformatics centre in Buffalo, and a great deal of pharmaceutical and biotech research occurs in Ann Arbor, he added.

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