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Nation's Universities Rally To Open High-Speed Networks in Their Towns

A marching bandful of research universities has signed on to launch a new high speed network project expected to improve computing not only on their campuses but also in the communities that surround them. The hope is that these "world leading" networks will help grow the local economies and stimulate new innovations in areas such as healthcare, job training, and education. Besides tapping university contributions, organizers said they hope to attract public and private money to fund development work.

"Our mission is simple," wrote Gig.U Executive Director Blair Levin in an open letter. "Accelerate the deployment of world-leading, next generation networks in the United States in a way that provides an opportunity to lead in the next generation of ultra high speed network services and applications." Levin formerly held the same position at the National Broadband Plan, a federal initiative that lays out a roadmap for accomplishing a similar goal.

The problem is acute, said organizers. According to a March 2011 report from the World Economic Forum, while the United States is among the top five countries in the world in overall network readiness, it comes in 30th in available bandwidth per capita.

The organization has rallied universities as the best target for achieving this goal for several reasons: Where large universities reside, the deployment of high-speed networks is expected to cost less and be used more; plus, the benefit case for the project suggests that people in the surrounding communities will not only consume the added bandwidth more readily but use it for the purposes of creation.

The A-list of participants in Gig.U includes 29 institutions, from Arizona State University to West Virginia U and includes Case Western Reserve U, Duke U, Indiana U, and Michigan State U, as well as U Chicago, U Florida, U Hawaii, U Michigan, U North Carolina, and U Washington, among many others. So far, neither highly populated California nor Texas universities are represented among the membership.

"Gig.U members came together to address our unique connectivity gap," said Case Western Reserve CIO Lev Gonick. "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 to gigabit networks in our university communities. We believe a small amount of investment can yield big returns for the American economy and our society."

By organizing demand around the universities, Gig.U is looking to improve the business case for suppliers to deliver high-speed networking. In a frequently asked questions page, the organization cited high density, strong institutional and residential demand, favorable demographics, significant existing network assets, and a stable economic base as attractive draws for the areas where these institutions are located.

The focus on building a compelling business case for bringing high-speed Internet to communities was given a jumpstart when Google in 2010 sought out a pilot location for its Community Fiber Initiative. During that effort nearly 1,100 communities organized to make a business case for being selected. Kansas City, KS won.

"We need a focused conversation between the demand side (universities and their communities) and the supply side (service providers and other enterprises interested in an upgrade) to determine if there are ways to bridge the gap sufficiently to induce private risk capital to invest," the FAQ stated. In the course of developing funding schemes that work for project participants, Gig.U plans also to develop lessons that can be applied by other communities seeking network upgrades.

Gig.U will issue a request for information (RFI) from service providers and others on how best to deliver high-speed networks. Following that, the organization expects universities and their communities to issue more targeted requests for proposals.

"The universities in our communities are the centerpiece to our talent and economic development efforts," noted Casey Steinbacher, president of the Greater Durham, NC area chamber of commerce, in a statement. "They are perfectly positioned to use that influence to drive even greater opportunities in these areas to parts of our communities that would never be in a position to benefit on their own. And by doing so, would effectively forever change the current perception of town and gown relationships."

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