Light Reading

Vendors Intrigued by Gigabit Network Project

Kaps Korner
Kaps Korner
Kaps Korner

11:15 AM -- The quixotic dream floated this summer by more than 30 leading U.S. research universities -- to build gigabit broadband networks in their towns -- apparently has a small groundswell of support from equipment manufacturers and service providers who might help them reach their goal, according to the group that's leading the charge.

In an announcement Thursday, the organization known as Gig.U -- for its goal of bringing Gigabit-per-second networks to research university campuses and towns -- said it had received "dozens" of formal replies to its request for information (RFI), a process by which the group sought any and every idea on how such networks might be built, with or without the blessing of traditional big-company service providers.

Gig-U RFI September 2011 Looking from the outside in, the RFI process gives some framework to Gig.U's warm-fuzzy idea of starting with a big goal and working backward to find a way to make it happen. Detractors of the Gig.U idea can easily point fingers and say it costs too much to build, and you'll never make money off such networks. What Gig.U executive director Blair Levin and his group are doing instead is opening up the process to any and all possible participants -- "Like Apollo 13, we want to put all the pieces of a network into a room and see if you can put them together in a different way to make economic sense," Levin said.

While it will take at least a month for Gig.U and its partners to sort through all the ideas, pitches, thoughts and advice, a quick read of some of the plans has cheered Levin into thinking that Gig.U wasn't such a crazy idea after all.

"The RFI [process] was a way to find out what all the technical options might be, what is possible," said Levin, whose resume includes his shepherding of the recent National Broadband Plan, a career as a Wall Street telecom analyst and a stint as chief of staff for FCC Chairman Reed Hundt during the Clinton administration. Among the RFI respondents are some well-known equipment manufacturers and backbone service providers, showing that Gig.U's ideas might have taken a first step toward reality.

The next step will be seeing how Gig.U towns, schools and suppliers might blend technology and business ideas into workable, sustainable networks. It might be a mix of fiber and wireless, perhaps using nascent white-spaces technology, serving only campus buildings or perhaps some innovation centers inside university towns. The group will hold a workshop early in 2012 to pick through the RFI ideas to see how they might best move forward, Levin said.

While the group and its supporters know they've got a long road ahead, they also know that if they wait around for the big telcos or cableco to build those networks, they might be waiting forever. Verizon's past doubts about the marketability of its high-speed services and its recent capitulation to the cable providers is proof to Levin that if gigabit networks are going to be built, there has to be a new blueprint. (See Can Big Broadband Inspire Innovation?.)

"It's pretty clear already that the market is not going to do this [build gigabit networks] on its own," Levin said. "If we want to get this done, we have to look at it all very differently."

What that means, Levin said, is that there is probably some mix of help from the community, new equipment that might be provided at cost, and shared expenses for backbone connectivity that brings such networks into being. Levin said that Gig.U is already learning some lessons from Google's upcoming launch of fiber-to-the-home services in Kansas City, such as how simple things like speeding up governmental approval can produce bottom-line results. (See Google's Fiber Engineers Descend on Kansas City .)

"There are things that a city can do to help [build a network] like provide rights-of-way, access to buildings and fast-track approvals," Levin said. "The cost of these things to the city is basically zero, but in Kansas City it was measurable to Google in dollars."

That the need will be there some day for these networks is almost a given; Levin pointed to a recent New York Times article about how DNA sequencing research is currently being hampered by networks unable to handle the big streams of data created. One of the points of building gigabit networks, he said, is not the end goal of the network speed but the enablement of innovation.

"The testbeds are not just for the networks, but for innovation -- where you can just wipe out any barriers caused by broadband issues," Levin said.

— Paul Kapustka is the founder and editor of Sidecut Reports, a Wireless analysis site and research service. He can be reached at Special to Light Reading.

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