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Research Universities Secure $200M for Community Broadband

Gig.U, a broad coalition of research universities that aims to deliver ultra-fast broadband to college campuses and their surrounding communities, has forged a partnership with a firm called Gigabit Squared that will offer up $200 million to build gigabit broadband service in as many as six areas around the country.

Officials from both organizations emphasize that they are working to deploy broadband networks that will be orders of magnitude faster than current commercially available services, not with any specific application in mind, but in the expectation that the academic research hubs and the entrepreneurial efforts that often grow out of them will use the infrastructure to make great leaps forward in bandwidth-intensive areas such as genetic research, health care, robotics and big data initiatives.

"It's time for a departure from strategies of the past, strategies that merely looked at fulfilling current demand," Giabit Squared President Mark Ansbury told reporters on a conference call announcing the new program. "It's really about serving the mainstream of tomorrow and thereby leveraging what's next."

Gigabit Squared and Gig.U took the occasion of a conference here on deploying broadband to communities and anchor institutions to make their joint announcement. Other groups pursuing non-traditional models for deploying blazing fast community broadband similarly emphasized the importance of so-called "future-proof" networks that can accommodate a bevy of rich applications geared for social issues ranging from transportation to energy, health care to education.

"What drives the industry forward is certainly the need to have those kinds of applications put on the network that will truly take advantage of the capability we're putting out there," said Susan Spradley, interim executive director of U.S. Ignite, a new group working to coordinate the development of applications geared for gigabit broadband networks. "The important thing to remember is that we don't know what the next application will be, per se."

Partnering With Juniper, Level and Alcatel

Gigabit Squared With the Gig.U agreement, Gigabit Squared will function as the network operator, but intends to leverage its partnerships with an array of Internet infrastructure players, including Juniper Networks, Level 3 and Alcatel Lucent. The firm has issued a request for proposals for communities to apply for a network build-out under the new Gigabit Neighborhood Gateway Program, with plans to announce the first wave of communities selected for network deployments in November, and the rest next March.

In addition to the high-speed connectivity, the deployments that Gigabit Squared will oversee will tap into existing but under-utilized network assets and secure investments from local stakeholders.

Blair Levin, executive director of Gig.U, explains that his organization and Gigabit Squared are emulating a community-driven model that Google pioneered with its project to deliver gigabit Internet service through a new fiber network in Kansas City.

"We are absolutely taking a page from Google's book," Levin said during a presentation at the conference hosted by the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

Levin, a former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission who returned to the agency to lead the development of a national broadband plan, acknowledged that the economics of the Internet service market aren't sufficient to entice established cable and phone providers to commit to building networks with the capacity Gig.U envisions. Instead, he noted that commercial providers increasingly have been experimenting with models such as data caps and bandwidth caps, allowing that such moves are perfectly rational for their business models.

He also waved off the argument that some broadband advocates have advanced that sees the United States as losing its competitive edge as foreign rivals—with smaller and denser populations—have shot ahead with faster service when measured by bandwidth per capita.

"We used to have an absolute bandwidth advantage. Our average citizen had more bandwidth than the average citizens of other countries, because we started it. But that's not true anymore and it's never going to be true again and that's okay," he said. "We cannot have greater bandwidth—absolute bandwidth—than a Korea, than a Singapore or than a Hong Kong."

So if a gigabit connection isn't a realistic goal for sparsely populated remote and rural areas of the United States, Gig.U's approach aims to seed research-intensive, innovative-minded communities anchored by major universities with broadband networks that could deliver symmetrical service robust enough to facilitate the transmission of medical images or remote patient exams, for instance.

"The fundamental question for policy makers is whether we want to drive a psychology of abundance, whether we want to remove bandwidth as a constraint to innovation," Levin said. "If our plan is one of abundance, we'll be fine. But if our psychology and if our vision and if the government says basically, 'We're okay with a psychology of scarcity,' we will be on the wrong side of history."

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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Read more about education in CIO's Education Drilldown.


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