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Universities Start Effort to Extend Broadband to Local Communities

Twenty-nine universities across the country have started a project to extend their high-speed networks to surrounding communities. The effort, called Gig.U , seeks to spread Internet connections that are several hundred times faster than the typical residential connection.

By working with commercial Internet-service providers to bring advanced networks to communities abutting campuses, Gig.U hopes to provide tech start-ups and the public with the connectivity needed to innovate in fields like telecommunications and health care. The high-speed connectivity offers the potential for streaming 3-D video and other rich multimedia.

Member universities—which include Duke University, Virginia Tech, and Arizona State University—have contributed up to $15,000 each to the project, which is focused on getting Internet companies to privately invest in expanding broadband.

But that push comes at a time when companies may be too cash-strapped to roll out ambitious networks, said one industry analyst.

Michael Howard, co-founder of a communications-analysis group called Infonetics Research, is skeptical of how much providers would be willing to invest in a costly technology when they are already pursuing cheaper high-speed options like mobile broadband.

The money from member universities will go toward gathering information from providers later this year on how to best work with the universities to extend the networks. Gig.U has already begun informal talks with several providers.

“We’re not looking to have communities invest capital—that’s the job for the private sector,” said Blair Levin, a fellow at the Aspen Institute, where Gig.U is based. He will serve as the project’s executive director and was the former director of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan.

Mr. Levin said that communities surrounding research universities often encompass university hospitals and businesses that would benefit from advanced connections. He cited Ann Arbor, Mich., and the research triangle in North Carolina as examples of university communities that have become havens for tech start-ups.

Lev S. Gonick, vice president of information technology services at Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, likened Gig.U’s approach to Groupon, an online company that offers group discounts. “What we need to do is demonstrate an aggregated demand,” he said. “The challenge today is very obvious—we don’t have an articulated demand for those kinds of speeds.”

Last year, Case Western extended its high-speed network to 104 surrounding residences in a pilot program called Case Connection Zone. The university has had ultrabroadband since 2002.

Mr. Levin pointed to Google, which has taken an interest in deploying ultrabroadband and is now building a fiber-optic network for Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan. When Google announced its plans to develop high-speed networks, over 1,000 communities applied to be the trial community for Google’s project. Mr. Levin compared Gig.U with Google’s Kansas City project, but instead of providers seeking communities, communities would now seek providers.

Mr. Howard acknowledged that it might be worthwhile for some companies to invest in the project for the public-relations benefits, if they can be seen as leaders in the networking industry and build a strong reputation of innovation with communities.

The superfast networks could open up new frontiers in technological development, Mr. Gonick said. “It’s not being able to send e-mails faster or downloading Netflix faster,” he said. “It’s really about trying to work to create possibilities of creating new products and services.”

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