City wants ultra fast Internet access
Jan 20, 2013 (Winston-Salem Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Imagine being able to download a high-definition movie in less than a minute, or doing video and audio editing from your laptop.
Those are among the potential benefits -- possibly as early as mid-2014 -- of Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem hitching a ride on what is being billed as the fastest lane yet on the information superhighway.
Wake Forest, along with Duke University, N.C. State University and UNC Chapel Hill, are establishing the N.C. Next Generation Network (NC NGN) as part of the GiG.U initiative involving 37 universities nationwide. The initiative has drawn more than $200 million in private investment funding.
The goal is enticing an Internet service provider (ISP) to offer ultra high-speed wireless service up to 100 times faster than typically available, with a potential cost of $70 to $100 a month. Providers would design, build, operate and own the network.
The initiative is patterned after the Google ultra high-speed project in Kansas City, Mo.
In technical terms, the network wants to upgrade high-speed fiber networks from 100 megabits per second up to 1 gigabit or higher per second on a wired, symmetric service. Symmetric means the user can access the same speed for uploads and downloads.
It's a way to allow more people to have access to cloud technology at an affordable price, said Rick Matthews, an associate provost for technology and information systems at Wake Forest.
Super wi-fi networks would be able transmit on much lower frequencies than current wi-fi, allowing the broadband signals to penetrate farther into buildings and cover much larger areas.
Gigabit-speed networks could make other activities, such as telecommuting, HD-quality videoconferencing and remote health services more feasible and affordable.
"Connectivity speed is the key to all of this," Matthews said.
"ISPs are interested in ultra high-speed service, but because it is such an expensive process, they want assurance that there will be viable customer bases. Our goal is to show them that Wake Forest and Winston-Salem and the surrounding communities are willing to be at the front of the line for this rollout."
Dennis Newman, chief information officer for Winston-Salem, said the local requests are expected to be submitted in February with responses returned by April 1. The goal is securing an ISP by this fall.
"All the major telecommunication companies are expected to be interested in building out the network nationwide," Newman said.
"We're optimistic that we will receive multiple proposals and that they will be competitive."
Crucial to global competition
The GiG.U initiative is part of an overall effort to create advanced Internet regions throughout the country, with the biggest focus on universities and their affiliates since most are high-volume customers of broadband networks.
There's also an effort, known as AIR.U, focusing on providing similar ultra high-speed service to rural America, also via universities.
Here's how it works: By using licenses for access to unused television channels, known as TV band "white spaces," universities and neighboring communities would expand significantly the coverage and capacity of high-speed wireless connectivity on and off campus.
The Federal Communications Commission recently certified the first commercial devices and geolocation database that will be needed to ensure that white space devices operate only on vacant TV channels and do not interfere with television reception. Nationwide certifications of a variety of equipment makers and database operators are expected in the coming months.
According to a recent article in the Economist magazine: "Apart from easing bandwidth problems, white-space could lead to a wireless revolution even bigger than the wave of innovation unleashed over a decade ago when Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies embraced the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band previously reserved for microwave ovens and garage-door openers."
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, in a guest column for Forbes magazine, said forming gigabit networks is "essential to economic growth, job creation and U.S. competitiveness."
"In a global economy, talent and capital can flow anywhere, and they'll flow to countries with the strongest innovation infrastructure," Genachowski said. "We're in a global bandwidth race, and we need to ensure the U.S. has a strategic bandwidth advantage."
For example, he cited Chattanooga, Tenn., for landing major projects with Amazon.com and Volkswagen because it built a gigabit fiber network similar to that being considered for the four N.C. universities. He said Kansas City's ultra high-speed connectivity has earned it the nickname "the Silicon prairie."
"We need more of these gigabit testbeds to ensure there is a sufficient market in the U.S. for super-high bandwidth application and services," Genachowski said.
Covering all of Forsyth
The spillover effect from the four N.C. universities gaining the ultra high-speed access also would cover Apex, Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh.
"Universities have a very strong interest in securing higher speed connectivity at affordable prices because much of what we do is by its nature very Internet intensive," Matthews said.
The cities are being asked to assist the universities with request for proposals to ISPs to build the networks in their communities. Both groups are not expected to have direct costs other than staff time and incidentals.
"The selected vendor(s) will be expected to pay all other costs, including paying for rent on existing, unused fiber," according to NC NGN officials. "Municipalities may be generating some revenue from this project."
Matthews said the network would consist of at least two hubs, one of which is likely to be established in or near each university. The service would spread to communities and neighborhoods, potentially covering all of Forsyth County at some point.
The ultra high-speed projects in Chicago, Kansas City and Seattle have rolled out with the approach that the neighborhoods expressing the greatest interest are often the first served.
According to a draft request for a proposal submitted to the Winston-Salem City Council on Jan. 2, among the requirements potential providers must meet are:
* non-discriminatory interconnectivity;
* low wholesale access prices that provide the provider with a return on investment commensurate with the risks involved;
* free or heavily discounted services to specified low-income neighborhoods and targeted anchor institutions;
* free wireless networks in parks and public spaces adjacent to the wired network.
The provider would be required to offer slower high-speed service at a "very low price" for digitally disadvantaged homes.
"By partnering together, members of the NC NGN can leverage better terms and conditions, while retaining the right for each municipality to negotiate individual agreements," NC NGN officials said.
"Typically, selections will be made based on the completeness of the application and the experience, credit-worthiness, and references of the vendor. In this case, the innovativeness of the proposed solution will also be considered."
The universities need city and county government assistance to smooth the path for providers to pursue right-of-way issues for the fiber-optic cable, tower space and discounted leases on necessary facilities, as well as defraying some initial capital costs and offering assurances of customer demand.
"Any contract would be an agreement to lease or rent assets for a fee in exchange for meeting certain criteria as part of their services," Newman said.
Matthews and Newman say they think Wake Forest and Winston-Salem can ace the customer demand checkbox because of the communities' awareness of the importance of high-speed Internet access to their future.
"It makes it an easier pitch to ISPs when our community markets itself as the city of the arts and innovation," Matthews said. "It is critical that local government officials are supportive in making this a high priority."
Another advantage Winston-Salem has is that the potential network would be built upon part of the high-tech foundation provided since 2001 by WinstonNet, a partnership of local governments, academic institutions and the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. WinstonNet's goal is bridging the technology divide between higher- and lower-income residents by providing free computer labs and tutoring.
Mayor Allen Joines said the city was approached about a year ago with the GiG.U concept.
He said securing the ultra high-speed network could be "a huge competitive advantage" in recruiting businesses, whether major high-tech economic projects or startups wanting to be near the blossoming research being done in Piedmont Triad Research Park, since Greensboro and Charlotte won't be involved in the first rollout.
"To be able to offer such broadband access could be truly transformative to our community," Joines said.
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