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Building for the Future: Gig.U's Investment in 1GB Networks

Public/Private Partnerships Spur Ultra-High-Speed Internet

When Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) announced in early 2010 that it would build a 1GB fiber network in one lucky city, the company received more than 1,100 applications. Eager citizens and local organizations made the case (sometimes in outlandish ways) for why their cities needed ultra-high-speed networks for their businesses, schools, hospitals, local government, and homes. Elise Kohn, program director for University Community Next Generation Innovation Project (a.k.a., Gig.U), says the Google experiment demonstrated an unprecedented desire for ultra-high-speed networks across the country, making a strong case for why ultra-high-speed networks were essential to U.S. growth. But, as a national investment, who would be willing to pay for such extensive infrastructure? And what sectors would make immediate use of such robust connectivity? According to Kohn and Blair Levin, who is heading up the Gig.U project, research universities and their surrounding communities will be the foundation of the 1GB revolution. These communities conduct top-notch research, scientific innovation, medical advances, and so on, which makes them a vital test-bed for ultra-high-speed capabilities. In short, research universities both “consume and create,” in Kohn's words, and will allow us to see what's capable in the future with 1GB.

“We're not saying everyone in America needs a gig—that's why this is a targeted investment where there's highest demand and highest yield,” Kohn says. At research universities, innovation and development would benefit from faster broadband speeds and even allow new advances in science, engineering, and medicine—key fields to U.S. global competitiveness. “If you look internationally or at what's happening at research universities,” according to Kohn, “there are important reasons that, if you want to be ahead, [1GB] is where it's going.” Not only would an ultra-high-speed network allow for smooth videoconferencing and webcasting, but the improved capabilities and data transfer rates would encourage the development of new applications, research opportunities, and learning tools. As just one example, Kohn sites current innovations in medical technology that, with advanced network capabilities, allow surgeons to practice on life-like 3D projections when training for open-heart surgery.

Kohn also highlights technologies already implemented at Case Western Reserve, a school that she calls “a great champion of Gig.U's plan.” Case Western is one of Gig.U's 30 members and last year set up a pilot program connecting a several block area surrounding campus. The Case Connection Zone now provides 1GB fiber-optic networking to more than 100 homes and has been a test bed for what Gig.U plans to do across the nation. “A number of our members [universities] are very well connected on campus,” Kohn says, “so that's not necessarily where we need to fill a need. But staff, faculty, and researchers go home at night, students live off-campus... and the research and development—the advanced work that they're doing—continues there.”

These dynamic research communities can also attract new businesses to a town or city, according to Lev Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western. Gonick said that within three months of implementing Case Connection Zone, three startups moved to the neighborhood. “Gig.U members came together to address our unique connectivity gap. We intimately understand that for American research institutions to continue to provide leadership in areas important to U.S. competitiveness, we have to act to improve the market opportunity for upgrading the networks in our university communities. We believe a small amount of investment can yield big returns for the American economy and our society,” says Gonick.

And Gig.U agrees with Gonick's more national focus. Its entire leadership team has direct experience with America's broadband needs (and lack) from working in various capacities at the FCC. Levin served as director of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, where he asserted that broadband was essential to American growth and competitiveness and that ultra-high-speed would be key to cutting edge research and development. Kohn says the National Broadband Plan also revealed that ultra-high-speed was not something the federal government would be able to invest in, at least in the short term. So early this year, Levin contacted CIOs at several universities to get the conversation going, and at the end of July Gig.U's project was announced publicly.

Gig.U's member universities come from nearly every region of the country—from the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico to the mountains of Colorado, and from the heartland states of Nebraska and Illinois, to coastal communities in Maine, Florida, and Hawaii. Most importantly, the research universities of Gig.U represent midsized communities which could potentially benefit from advanced connectivity, according to Kohn. “The universities in Gig.U have strong relationships with the communities around them,” Kohn says, “so we're allowing the universities to do the outreach to communities and surrounding areas [to explain the Gig.U initiative].”

Karl Kowalski, chief information technology officer for the University of Alaska System, says he thinks Gig.U's public/private partnership will bring value for the community surrounding University of Alaska. “While much has been done to connect the University of Alaska Fairbanks to major research networks,” he says, “our communities, our partners and our state could advance this research through innovative testbeds and community involvement if ultra-high speed networks were available to all.”

At West Virginia University, another of Gig.U's member companies, Chief Information Officer Rehan Khan says that the group is looking for proposals in order "to deploy networks not in decades but rather within the next several years." The school, along with Gig.U's other members, hopes that new networks will spur local economies and job opportunities in their regions. Jay Cole, WVU chief of staff who initiated the University’s involvement in Gig.U said, "It is the general population we are seeking to serve and encourage to use University innovation to create new jobs and improve the economy."

On Aug. 18, Gig.U issued a Request for Information in the form of an open letter, saying the group will “consider ways in which multiple Project communities can work together... to improve the private sector business case for next-generation networks.” Kohn says the group has sought input from a variety of communications providers—from national providers like AT&T (NYSE:T), Comcast (Nasdaq:CMCSA), Frontier (NYSE:FTR), Windstream (Nasdaq:WIN), and Verizon (NYSE:VZ), to regional providers like Blackfoot Telecommunications Group in Montana and Smithville Communications in Indiana. “We are doing direct outreach to them,” Kohn says, “and they are also coming to member companies and expressing interest. We've also talked with Google, Lucent (NYSE:ALU), Cisco (Nasdaq:CSCO), and anyone involved in the ecosystem. If providers in the vicinity of one of our members have an idea for how to meet the needs of that community, together, they should definitely respond. It's a learning exercise.” The Request for Information period will end in November.

It's still hard to tell what Gig.U will look like when implemented, but Kohn says much of that will depend on the specific needs and the network configuration of each member university and its community. The group is not seeking federal funding, however, and new network build outs would be funded by Gig.U members as well as private-sector companies and non-profits who join the project.

When asked about the precariousness of a “build-it-and-they-will-come” approach, Kohn said that scenario isn't really a concern in Gig.U's case. “Research universities and the communities around them already have a history of development, and this really creates a cycle of opportunity.” Kohn says this is not unlike the progression to high-speed from dial-up, in the way that high-speed has become a new standard, while creating new applications and advancements. “The risk/return profile for a private company to help build out these networks is better because of the universities,” according to Kohn. “They're more tech-savvy communities. Give them access now and they'll understand what they can do, and with those advances, more and more will start to need it."

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