UW looks to connect South Lake Union to better broadband

By Anthony James | Puget Sound Business Journal | September 5, 2011


Universities have always been on the cutting edge of technology innovation, and that innovation requires a lot of bandwidth. Now, the University of Washington is looking to spread that bandwidth to Seattle’s high-tech neighborhoods.

Gig.U, or the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, is a partnership of 33 universities from across the nation, all aiming for the same goal. Universities usually have speedy internet connections (up to one gigabit per second – about 100 times faster than the average DSL or cable connection), so the partner institutions are cooperating with local municipalities to connect industry to the greater bandwidth.

In Seattle, one of the first areas being looked at is the South Lake Union neighborhood, according to Kelli Trosvig, UW vice president and vice provost for information technology. The new Amazon headquarters, countless startups and a heavy biotech presence make this area an attractive area for broadband expansion, and the South Lake Union Chamber of Commerce has expressed interest.

“We see this as just a starting point,” Trosvig said.

Other possibilities include the Eastlake corridor, the Cascade neighborhood, areas directly west of the UW campus, Montlake, Beacon Hill, Fremont and Rainier Beach.

Trosvig said a request for information will be sent out to service providers later this month. In November, a request for proposals will be released, and bids to connect buildings to the fiber optic backbone would be opened in early 2012.

Heading the Gig.U project is Blair Levin. Levin has worked for the Federal Communications Commission twice – the first time during the Clinton administration where he oversaw the first spectrum auctions, and again in 2009 to work on the National Broadband Plan.

The focus of Gig.U isn’t necessarily to connect the average homeowner to gigabit speeds, but to expand the service to technology and biotech companies.

“Part of our view is that if you give creative, innovative Americans the resources, they will continue to innovate,” Levin said. “From a public perspective, we’re not sure they need (these speeds). From a research perspective, they will need it in certain areas.”

Once a “critical mass” of areas with the faster internet speeds is established, Levin said, it’s easier to bring broadband to an overwhelming majority of Americans.

Expanding broadband internet is a lot like expanding the telegraph network in the 19th century, and the electrical grid in the 20th century. Urbanites were the first to receive these services, and it was often decades later, when government projects spurred the expansion, until rural Americans were wired.

It’s similar with universities. The UW and its research programs, combined with shear size, have necessitated the need for the university to be connected with gigabit speeds, according to Trosvig.

Bill Schrier, chief technology officer for the City of Seattle, said about 500 miles of fiber optic lines are already in place in the city. Most of this is built for far more capacity than is currently being used. Currently, Schrier said Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is working with the City Council to modify ordinances that prohibit the publicly-owned fiber from being used by private service providers.

So does all of this mean gigabit broadband could reach every Seattle home and business? Probably not, or at least any time soon.

“It would be a $700 million to $800 million process,” Schrier said. “There’s nobody willing to build it throughout the city.”


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