Scientists worldwide can tap into almost unlimited bandwidth after the European Union unveiled an upgraded version of its Géant multigigabit research network.

At a ceremony in Luxembourg, European Commissioner for the Information Society Viviane Reding switched on the new Géant2 network which uses "dark" fibreoptic cables. The enhanced network builds on EU's Géant network which has more than three million users worldwide and connects more than 3,500 research institutions.

The main beneficiaries of the upgrade are expected to be researchers with large data transfer needs, such as those working in astronomy, subatomic physics or biological sciences.

By using dark fibre, the network should offer performance of up to 320Gbit/s or 10Gbit/s for multiple use. Dai Davies, general manager of DANTE, a non-profit organisation that manages the Géant network, said that the cost of adding extra bandwidth would be marginal because of the use of dark fibre so the system would effectively offer unlimited capacity to users.

Efforts to improve bandwidth capacity came after it was recognised that two scientists sharing research findings could "generate as much [network] traffic as two countries." While in the past the network had been the bottleneck, now it was users' computers causing slowdowns, he said.

Davies predicted that the main beneficiaries of the upgraded network will be researchers in astronomy and biological sciences. "Each radio telescope generates around 500 megabytes of data on its own," he said. But this information could be exchanged between researchers in real time, thanks to the Géant network. In the past astronomers had to collect data on magnetic tape and physically ship them to other research sites with delays of up to 80 days. "The Géant network has changed all that," he said.

The expanded network will also be used by biological researchers who need high broadband capacity to share digital information about collections of specimens, he said.

The new network will also allow for direct connections between research centres with particularly high data transfer requirements, such as the CERN hadron collider, near Geneva, which is used in subatomic physics research.

The network will extend the use of dark fibre to four new EU member states - Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

An additional feature of the upgraded system is that it will allow researchers to "roam" or access the system from a number of points instead of from only their own research base. The addition of this feature is to "provide in a competitive context what you enjoy on your mobile phone today," Davies said.

While the first Géant network attracted advanced research work to the EU in areas such as exploiting the new IP version 6 to grid computing, it is hoped that the upgraded system will extend the EU into other fields, said Ulf Dahlsten of the European Commission's Information Society Directorate-General.

While Géant2 is a European project, funded by the Commission and European national research and education networks, it links researchers around the world.