What is the Project?

The University Community Next Generation Innovation Project (“the Project”) is a group of leading research universities, in partnership with their local communities, which are working toward accelerating the offering of ultra high-speed network services to their communities.


Why does the Project want to accelerate the offering of such services?

While many universities enjoy advanced network capability to institutional settings on their campus, many universities and their communities need upgrades to similar capabilities to the rest of their campus, to institutions and businesses near their campus, and to residential areas surrounding their campus.  As our society increasingly depends on high-speed broadband networks for education, healthcare, business and day-to-day tasks, it is no longer sufficient for high-speed networks to reach the heart of campus.  To enhance and apply the research performed on campus our surrounding communities must also have access to next-generation networks.  In addition, having a critical mass of university communities with such networks would enable sharing advanced applications between the university communities which increases the potential impact of such networks.  Having such networks would advance university research, innovations in existing and new markets, economic growth, and community priorities, such as improvements in health care, education and public safety.  Having unlimited bandwidth creates unlimited possibilities.

As such networks are now the common medium for international research, for American research universities to continue to lead the world, it is not enough for the networks they use to be world-class; they must be world leading.  Further, for the United States to stay competitive in the next generation of research and applications, we need a critical mass of our best minds working on the most advanced broadband platforms.


Won’t the market provide such services?

The current service providers in the United States do not have any plans to offer ultra high-speed services; nor is the market organized to meet the specific needs of research communities.  In some areas, legacy regulations make providing such services difficult.  By organizing demand through the Project, university communities can improve the business case for suppliers to meet the needs of university communities and can help overcome legacy requirements that erect barriers to such services.


Why are universities interested in obtaining such services for their surrounding communities?

Universities see the availability of such services on campus and in their communities as essential for retaining their world leading position in research and teaching, as well as for remaining on the cutting edge of new techniques in collaborative research, which is now being done over such communications networks.  Universities view these networks as part of a package for attracting professors, students, and support for adjacent institutions, such as medical centers and businesses, which wish to be near university communities.


Why will suppliers be interested providing such services to university communities?

The business case for ultra high-speed networks improves where a community enjoys high density, strong institutional and residential demand, favorable demographics, significant network assets and a stable economic base.  Research university communities, which meet all these criteria, are the most attractive markets for ultra-high speed networks.


Who will provide the capital for the necessary upgrades?

The fundamental economic problem is that the cost of deploying ultra-high speed networks does not currently meet the revenues that the demand side is willing to provide.  However large that gap is in communities generally, that gap is smallest in university communities because the cost of deployment is less (due to such factors as higher density, existing assets, stable employment base) and the demand is greater (as university and knowledge based enterprises around universities, as well as students and faculty want higher bandwidth) than the demand by the public at large.

While there has been a great deal of concern raised by both government officials and business leaders that our advanced wired broadband networks are slower than in other countries, and that in the long-run, such a disparity can stunt our economic growth, the daunting gap between the cost of such networks and the demand in American communities generally has lead to little action.  This effort will focus the attention of the business side and policy makers on a critical – but often overlooked – point; from both an economic perspective and a policy perspective, a relatively small amount of financial capital and political capital focused on an upgrade to university communities can yield major gains.  To do so, 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 in whatever network assets and service functions are necessary to bring an upgrade to university communities.  Through this process, the Project can chart a path for an accelerated upgrade for its members while also providing valuable lessons for others who wish to create a more favorable climate for network upgrades for their communities.


Will others support this effort?

We believe that a large group of others, including local, state and federal government entities, foundations, non-profit organizations, and private companies, particularly those with an interest in university research generally and the broadband ecosystem specifically, will be interested in assisting the effort.  They understand the importance of next generation networks to generating economic growth and assuring the long-term world leadership of our research institutions.  We also think they understand that product innovations in using advanced communications networks, such as Mosaic and Google, always come from providing the academic community, including students, the most advanced networks ahead of when such networks are commercialized for the mass market.  If we are to lead in the next generation of applications tomorrow, as we have led to date, we have to put the next generation of networks in the hands of our research communities today.


How is this effort related to the Google Community Fiber Initiative?

Both initiatives seek to accelerate providing next-generation network services in the United States, but they approach it in different ways.  The Google effort is supply side driven, in which Google will be testing whether its approach can work in what one might think of as a typical American community.  The Project effort is demand side driven in which the best targets for private investment in next generation network services are testing whether new approaches can induce private capital to accelerate the upgrade.

The Project benefits from Google’s effort in three ways.

  • First, the Google effort caused 1,100 communities, including nearly all the University communities involved in the Project, to organize themselves to improve the business case for potential suppliers.  The Project will build on those organizational efforts.
  • Second, the Google relationship with Kansas City, Kansas will provide a model for how communities can improve the business case for next generation services by decreasing the cost of deployment and increasing demand.
  • Third, the Google effort demonstrated the power of competition; by starting a competition between the communities for the fiber, the effort stimulated a mass of creative thinking and flexibility about how to approach the opportunity.

So here, the Project hopes to work with all potential service providers, including incumbents and others, such as Google, through a competitive process that generates focused analysis, creative thinking and new approaches to the segment of the market that can most use the next generation services and for which the economy most benefits by that market segment having such services.


How is this effort related to the existing Research and Education (R&E) networks?

The Project is focused on providing broader community connectivity to the member universities and communities.  The existing R&E networks provide significant institutional connectivity to all of the member universities.  This effort will neither duplicate nor compete with those networks.  Rather, the Project will work with the R&E community and others with network facilities in the university communities, to develop new approaches to extending and upgrading existing network assets with a focus  on higher speed retail offerings to places on campus that are not served by the existing R&E networks and to the areas surrounding the campuses.   This will enable those who work with ultra-high speed networks on campus to be able to continue their work while home and create laboratories of greater connectivity throughout the university and surrounding community.

Why is the Project forming now?

The Google Community Fiber initiative demonstrated that university communities believe they can benefit from such networks and are willing to organize and act in other ways that improve the business case for providing such services.  The ongoing initiative creates a new dynamic in the market that will be helpful in attracting interest from other potential suppliers.  Universities also need to upgrade their networks to both interact with and compete with the networks that universities in other countries are going to have and to take advantage of the presence of new middle-mile networks, financed through federal government grants.  Further, the universities need to respond to the Federal Government’s view that we as a country need to invest more in innovation related infrastructure and high-speed applications.  The Project will build on all these dynamics to drive new approaches to bringing ultra high-speed connectivity to university communities.


How will the Project proceed?

The Project will issue a Request for Information (RFI) from service providers and others as to how we can best approach the mission of bringing high-speed networks to our research institutions and their communities.  That dialogue will provide all parties with a better understanding of, as well as spark creative ideas about, how to accelerate the deployment of ultra high-speed networks in university communities.  Based on that process, we expect that the universities and their communities will follow up with targeted Requests for Proposals (RFP) to enter into agreements necessary to achieve the vision of ultra high-speed communities.


How will the Project be funded?

All university members of the Project will contribute to the funding.  In addition, the Project will seek funding from non-profits, who have an interest in improving university research and achieving the other goals of the Project, and from private enterprises that have an interest in accelerating the development of high-speed networks and applications.  The Project will not accept funding from Internet service providers.  We believe that this one-time, relatively small investment will create value orders of a magnitude greater in terms of innovations that can result from accelerated advanced networks in university communities and in terms of what all parties learn about how to accelerate the upgrade to such networks.


How will the work of the Project be coordinated?

The work will be directed by four operating committees composed of representatives of the universities and communities that have joined in the first phase of the Project.  Blair Levin, a fellow at the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and formerly the Executive Director of the National Broadband Plan will serve as Executive Director for the Project.  Elise Kohn, who formerly served as Policy Advisor at the Federal Communications Commission and Adoption Director on the National Broadband Plan, will serve as Project Director.  During the RFI phase, the principal effort will be designed to facilitate efficient information flow between Project members and potential suppliers.  The project will be incubated at the Aspen Institute, an international non-profit dedicated to providing a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues.