Networking | Feature
Universities See Regional Broadband as Critical to Success
Forward-looking institutions are investing in broadband infrastructure both for themselves and for the regions they serve.
Scattered throughout the country are technological oases where data-thirsty Internet users can access blindingly fast, affordable broadband service. These super-connected communities are engines of innovation and economic progress. They are, of course, our nation's universities.
Beyond the brick-walled perimeters and filigreed iron gates of campuses, the Internet service available to neighborhoods that ring our universities tends to be comparatively slow and considerably more costly.
A decade ago, Case Western Reserve University (OH) was such a place. The Cleveland institution "had an amazing network technology, and like a lot of great research universities it was incredibly inwardly focused as an institution, including its technology organization," recalled Lev Gonick, chief executive officer of One Community and former CIO at the university. "It was world class but on an island."
The mission of One Community, spun off from CWRU as a not-for-profit organization in 2003, is to transform Northeast Ohio into a "smart region," one that uses resources to support technological innovation, customer-centric public services and "a superb overall quality of life for its citizens," according to the One Community Web site.
Case Western is one among a growing group of universities that in recent years has worked to expand accessibility to broadband. Having played a pivotal role in creating the Internet, the country's universities are now seeking to democratize it. They are motivated by self-preservation, global competition and the recognition that world-class universities cannot thrive when besieged by a wasteland of technological deprivation.
"Students expect and need broadband, especially WiFi, in class, in their residence and in outside areas. In other words, everywhere," said Joanna Young, chief information officer at the University of New Hampshire. "Universities have a vested interest in broadband for themselves and their communities, as well as the regions they serve."
New Hampshire CIO Joanna Young explains why regional broadband infrastructure is important to her university.
Since the privatization of the Internet two decades ago, a relatively small number of for-profit companies "have enjoyed near monopoly rights" to invest in and expand the infrastructure, Gonick pointed out.
For a while, the arrangement served the country well. Large companies made billion-dollar investments. Dial-up service gave way to DSL, cable Internet, satellite service and fiber optic Internet access. Investments have slowed, however, and improvements have stalled. Verizon is no longer building out its Fios fiber optic network, for example, which covers only about 15 percent of households.
Non-telecommunications companies have emerged to fill the void, among them Google, government and institutions of higher education working alone and in coalitions.
The University of New Hampshire was pressed into action of necessity. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in 2009 allocated more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars for economic stimulus, including $7.2 billion to expand access to broadband services in the United States. New Hampshire won an award of $65 million, and the state tapped its flagship university to administer the grant program — the largest the university had ever overseen. Selecting UNH was an easy decision; no other entity in the state had the experience to oversee the project.
With the university leading the way, the state constructed 750 miles of open access fiber, expanded the public safety and intelligent transportation infrastructures and established a Broadband Center of Excellence. In the bargain, the state's university and community college systems gained "exponentially more bandwidth," Young said.
That upgrade is vital because of changes in the way people (and machines) access, use and share information — on and off university campuses. The ability of students to consume content outside the classroom affords professors opportunities for more engaging, meaningful interactions with students in the classroom. (Students on campus have an average of four Internet-enabled devices, Young noted.)
High-speed Internet access has become a basic utility, like electricity or water. It's noticeable only when it's missing. "Broadband access is a critical success factor in educational outcomes, from kindergarten through post-secondary," Joanna said. "South Korea has 100 percent access for its students; in the U.S., it's less than 30 percent."
A Replicable Model
Case Western Reserve University unleashed One Community on the Cleveland area because it recognized that the future of the city and the research university are intimately intertwined and that the health of one was codependent on the other. "The goal was to take the great networking savviness of the university and turn it into a city-wide and regional asset that could enable a broader blueprint for the future of the greater Cleveland area — built on broadband and network savviness and engineering and built on the insight that the currency of the 21st Century would be made up of optics and bits and bytes," Gonick said.
The Cleveland experiment, encompassing 23 counties and more than two dozen universities, resulted in development of a "reference architecture" for how other universities and cities can work together to develop "a more creative and more dynamic ecosystem of extending campus networking to communities around them." Beneficiaries of Cleveland's expanded network include healthcare organizations, government agencies, museums, libraries and not-for-profit organizations.
Case Western Reserve University and One Community are members of Gig.U, a consortium of universities that are leading efforts to expand broadband access around the country. In Gainesville, FL, the regional utility is building an "Innovation Square" around the University of Florida that includes gigabit service; in East Lansing, MI, an initiative is underway to bring gigabit networks to apartments near Michigan State University; and in Blacksburg, VA, a new downtown WiFi broadband service will connect users in and around Virginia Tech to a gigabit network.
"If you want to create human capital that knows how to design, build and operate the best networks in the world, you've got to do it somewhere," said Blair Levin, executive director of Gig.U. The consortium initially formed as a subset of communities that had applied to become part of the Google Fiber network, which promises speeds that are 100 times faster than today's average broadband service. Some of the applicants that had major research universities in their municipalities formed a group to seek their own solutions.
"Google Fiber is great, but Google Fiber is not everywhere and isn't going to be everywhere. It will require a lot of different efforts by institutions and organizations to build and grow the type of infrastructure we will need," Young said.
And it will require a lot of money. A major goal of Gig.U is demonstrating to the market that there is demand for next-generation infrastructure. "The goal is to get us into a situation where the trillions of dollars sitting on the sidelines start moving into play so we can enjoy next-generation services instead of being stuck with 1970s and 1980s technology," Gonick said. With better Internet resources, "there is no reason two girls in a neighborhood garage couldn't create the next Facebook.
"We are in a globally competitive environment, and broadband is a huge driver of innovation," he continued. "To the extent that college campuses can help the country to create a model for being globally competitive, we have a national obligation to give it the old college try."