THE highly touted information superhighway is already in place, while Fast Ethernet's time has come, according to Paul Sherer, director of technology development at US networking giant 3Com Corp. While this may be good news to computer users, Mr Sherer said the current set of electronic conduits could not yet be considered a superhighway. Characterising it as ''fragmented'', he said: ''There are two major issues to face in developing the superhighway: how many lanes are to be constructed, and what services are to be provided at offramps''. In fact, computer users around the globe have been communicating across the present highway for quite some time. Such communication has taken the form of E-mail, and users in a specialised industry segment co-operating on a project, or simply exchanging information, he added. As an example of the latter, he cited a case where 600 members of the Fast Ethernet Alliance located all over the world were working on a single document. Here, 3Com set up an E-mail distribution list according to the individual user's interests. While this was certainly impressive, Mr Sherer conceded that there was still a long way to go. ''It would take a while to send a giant file across the US,'' he said. The Fast Ethernet Alliance is an open industry group set up to guide the development of Ethernet network technology with a data transfer rate of 100 megabits per second. Mr Sherer helped to found the alliance and serves as its chairman. Presently installed Ethernet networks operate at 10 megabits, a speed now considered to be a bottleneck, because network performance cannot keep pace with today's powerful personal computers and workstations. Fast Ethernet is the solution that will alleviate this bottleneck and add bandwidth to the information superhighway. While standards have yet to be formalised by the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE), such standards have been outlined with sufficient clarity for 3Com to have demonstrated adapters, repeaters and external transceivers. The company planned to ship Fast Ethernet standards by the end of the year as standards would have been stabilised by then, Mr Sherer said. Mr Sherer said he believed Fast Ethernet offered a multitude of advantages when compared to alternative technologies, such as the avant garde asynchronous transfer mode (ATM). ''As Fast Ethernet is based on existing standards and technologies, it leverages areas where developers have expertise and silicon development experience,'' he said. On the end-user side, there is also ''a knowledge base applicable to both Ethernet and Fast Ethernet. Customers installing Fast Ethernet can leverage their network administration expertise and would incur only a minimal additional training cost. ''As far as system maintenance is concerned, customers could also economise, as tools used to maintain Ethernet could also be used to maintain Fast Ethernet as well,'' Mr Sherer added. According to a recent survey published in Network World , a networking magazine, 77 per cent of the respondents said they would be evaluating the need to install a 100-megabit LAN within the next two years. Mr Sherer outlined one possible reason for such an active response: ''Because Fast Ethernet is Ethernet, those customers already using Ethernet need not upgrade everything at once, as not everybody needs it right away.'' He advised potential customers to consider incremental upgrading, such as adding 100-megabit switches where bandwidth is needed and files get unwieldly. Such a switch would cost roughly twice what a 10-megabit switch would cost. End-user applications which would benefit most from the increased performance of Fast Ethernet include computer aided design and engineering, database processing, multimedia and deadline-orientated applications, and time-critical endeavours such as publishing and trading floors, according to Mr Sherer. He added that functional areas most in need of Fast Ethernet would include centralised servers and backup and restore tasks.