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Universities to bring 1Gbps broadband to local communities

Twenty-nine American Universities are working together to create ultra-high-speed broadband networks in their surrounding communities to spur innovation.

A group of 29 universities in the U.S. is banding together to bring ultra-high-speed broadband access to the communities surrounding their campuses in an effort to attract start-ups and spur innovation.

The project, called Gig.U, was announced today and aims to build world-class broadband infrastructure to attract high-tech start-ups to areas close to universities. Some of the sectors the project directors hope to target are health care, energy, and telecommunications.

Several of the universities participating in the program, including Arizona State University, Duke University, and University of Michigan, are not in a major metropolitan areas. And others, such as Howard University, University of Chicago, Case Western Reserve, and George Mason University, are in or are close to major cities. But most of the universities involved in the project are not in regions that are considered hotbeds of innovation for technology start-ups.

The hope is that the new infrastructure, which will provide broadband speeds up to 1Gbps to individuals and businesses, will create a hub where cutting-edge start-ups and other businesses will flock to be closer to university researchers and a pool of talented students and graduates.

The project itself is still in the early days, and details about funding haven't been hammered out yet. But Blair Levin, a fellow at the Aspen Institute who is heading up the project, told the New York Times, that the group is not looking for government funding to build the network. Instead, Gig.U participants are reaching out to broadband companies and other private investors to partner on building the infrastructure.

"The idea is that current and existing providers would fund the networks," Levin said in an e-mail to CNET. "But that universities and communities could explore ways to improve the business case by lowering capital cost and improving demand."

Levin said that he has talked to all the major broadband providers and they are intrigued by the notion of a discrete market, such as the ones that the Gig.U networks would produce. But so far no broadband providers have offered firm commitments to participating or offering funding. That said, Levin emphasized that the participating universities will be targeting specific businesses and industries and will in effect create demand for the high speed networks.

The Gig.U project is similar to a network that Google is building. Earlier this year, Google said it would choose a few cities around the country to test new 1Gbps networks. In March, it announced Kansas City, Kansas, as the first city to get the 1Gbps test-network.

Google's goal in building these ultra-fast broadband test-beds is to deliver more than 100 times the speed of broadband connection to communities and allow entrepreneurs and businesses to figure out what to do with all the bandwidth.

"High-speed Internet access must be much more widely available," Eric Schmidt, Google's chairman, said at the time. "Broadband is a major driver of new jobs and businesses, yet we rank only 15th in the world for access. More government support for broadband remains critical."

Levin said that the goal of Google's project and the Gig.U project are similar, which is to accelerate the deployment of next-generation networks. Prior to coming to the Aspen Institute, Levin worked at the FCC and was in charge of developing the agency's National Broadband Plan. This plan calls on the extending broadband to every American and it promises to offer 100 Mbps broadband to 100 million people by 2020.

The Gig.U and Google plans could help make these plans a reality, as researchers and entrepreneurs develop applications to use more bandwidth.

"What we don't know is how many great ideas and revolutionary products wait to see the light of day while network bandwidth and computer resources play catch up," Hugh Hallman, mayor of Tempe, Ariz., where Arizona State University is located, said in a statement. "It is for this reason that the city of Tempe is partnering with Arizona State University and other leading research universities intent on accelerating the deployment of ultra-high speed data networks."

But Levin added that even the goal of the Gig.U and Google projects is similar, the strategy for achieving the goals is different. The Gig.U initiative focuses exclusively on bringing high bandwidth to university communities, where Levin said there is demand for high speed Net access even outside the walls of the universities.

Most major universities already have access to cutting edge Internet technology and many are involved in research and development networks such as Internet 2, which is used to connect universities throughout the world to share data and also test new Internet technologies. But Gig.U is about extending the high speed Internet access outside the university to the private sector.

Elias Eldaryrie, chief information officer for the University of Florida in Gainsville, Fla., said that its important for the businesses in the community to have access to the same type of network resources that the universities have.

"In order for research universities and communities to grow and prosper together, we need access to the same technology," he said. "Ultra-high-speed broadband is the new baseline; it's where U.F. and Gainesville need to be so that we can compete together with the best the world has to offer."