Universities Launch Ultra-high-speed Broadband Initiative

A group of 29 U.S. universities has banded together in an effort to accelerate ultra-high-speed broadband deployment to their campuses and surrounding communities, organizers announced Wednesday.

Within the next two months, Gig.U project will solicit information on new approaches for deploying super-fast broadband networks, with a longer-term goal of having private companies build the networks.

The universities will look for new ideas from current broadband providers, potential providers and others to overcome the economic challenges of building ever-faster broadband networks, said organizer Blair Levin, a fellow at the Aspen Institute's Communications and Society Program and former executive director of the U.S. Federal Communication Commission's national broadband plan.

The project will look for information on coverage, prices and other issues holding back ultra-high-speed broadband deployment on university campuses and surrounding communities, Levin said. "What are ways in which communities can act to improve that business case?" he added.

U.S. universities and their surrounding communities need faster broadband to maintain their world-leading research efforts, the group said in an open letter.

"Research universities increasingly depend on high-speed networks to educate, collaborate, and innovate," the letter reads. "Unfortunately, the networks our leading university communities depend on do not provide the necessary advanced connectivity. Nor does the current market plan to upgrade the networks sufficiently to retain our leadership."

With the Gig.U project, the participating schools will not "accept the current reality," the letter reads.

The average broadband speed across the U.S. higher education system is about 10 Mbps, said Lev Gonick, CIO and vice president of IT services at Case Western Reserve University, a Gig.U member. Many larger universities have access to 100 Mbps, and some leading research universities have 1 Gbps.

The medical school at Case Western is "no longer satisfied" with 1 Gbps, but wants 10 Gbps to better handle radiological scans and other data, he said.

Gig.U wants to bring faster speeds to the communities surrounding universities as well, as a way to attract top-notch faculty and students, organizers said.

In some Cleveland neighborhoods surrounding Case Western, "you have chicken wire" for Internet infrastructure, Gonick said. Some people near campus have to use dial-up service because there is no broadband, he said.

The goal is constantly improving broadband service, Levin said. "The idea here is world-leading and next-generation," he added. "This is not about the tape at the end of the track that you just run through and you're done."

A wide range of groups and people expressed support for Gig.U. Members of the FCC praised the project, as did representatives of the Information Technology Industry Council, Facebook, Craiglist.org and Intel.

AT&T called Gig.U an "intriguing initiative."

"Broadband is a significant force for economic growth, job creation and innovative services for consumers, and Gig.U highlights these and other important benefits of broadband," AT&T said in a statement.

Universities participating in Gig.U include Duke University, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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