What GigU Can Do for Your U

Paul Kapustka | Educational IT | May 18, 2012


What could your university community do differently if it had a gigabit network at its disposal?

That formerly theoretical question will soon get some real-world answers, thanks to the first formal announcement of a college-town gigabit network being built under the nationwide GigU initiative.

The University of Maine and the surrounding town of Orono, Maine, happily joined hands with the service provider GWI Inc. this month to build an “ultra-high-speed” network in and around the town and campus. With planned download speeds of approximately 1 Gbit/s, the network will be the first in the nationwide GigU initiative to bring high-speed networks to university towns to help spur research and innovation.

What’s more important than the initial cost for the service — when it arrives, it will cost $59.95 a month for a “quarter gigabit” pipe (approximately 250 Mbit/s) or $89.95 for a full gigabit — is the fact that the service is being built or offered commercially at all. It’s pretty quick proof that the GigU model of bringing together towns, universities, and infrastructure providers to find new ways to build networks might actually be a new way forward. And that could be great news for your university community, if you think (as many others do) that high-speed networks are one way to spur innovation.

The GigU initiative was started about a year ago by a group of almost 40 universities and some big thinkers, including Blair Levin, who now serves as GigU’s executive director. Levin is kind of the personal force behind the initiative. Its goals reflect what he’s spent a large part of his career in the communications world doing: trying to figure out ways to bring the power of fast networks to every place he can.

Levin was the chief of staff for then-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt during the first part of the Clinton administration. It’s often overlooked that the FCC was pretty innovative with programs like bringing free Internet services to libraries and helping push spectrum auctions to free up wireless airwaves for data communications. More recently, Levin headed the group that developed the National Broadband Plan, a blueprint for moving the country forward in digital communications. Unfortunately, that plan has gone largely ignored, thanks to political forces led by the incumbent telco powers.

Now out of government and roaming the land as a fellow for the Aspen Institute, Levin is at GigU, which seeks to solve a big problem: the broken financial equation for building high-speed wireline networks. Right now, the biggest US providers (AT&T and Verizon) are actually scaling back landline network expenditures, for the simple reason that they can’t make money on the deployments. Under the current regulatory and political/metro structures, it simply costs too much to put fiber in the ground, and with people dropping landline phone services in favor of mobile phones, the providers can’t make margins large enough to keep shareholders and Wall Street happy.

The average person may not notice much or care — hey, my iPhone is working, so I’m OK — but stalled innovation when it comes to high-speed networks means that centers of research, like university towns, are going to fall behind in the global competitive sphere. Already there are examples of research being stifled by a lack of high-speed networking. The focus of GigU is not to bring broadband everywhere, but to strategically help places get big pipes installed using new ideas aboout funding, political cooperation, and shared ownership of assets.

This isn’t a revolution that is going to happen overnight. It is going to take time for people to process GigU’s argument about changing the equation for valuing and building networks. On the basic level, it seems to make sense. Why not have cities and other regulatory bodies compromise on things like rights fees and service taxes to enable service providers to build something that makes economic sense? Is there some tangible benefit to having a high-speed network for businesses and university research that is worth giving up some up-front costs for real estate or rights-of-way fees?

Perhaps so. It will be a fight, because the telco powers don’t necessarily want people to find new ways to build networks. But it’s easy to see things from GigU’s perspective — the current model isn’t working, and the country is falling behind when it comes to high-speed commercial networks. The bigger question may be what the cost of not doing this would be. Do you really want that answer? Or do you want to see what GigU could do for your U?


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