Government Asks Colleges to Enhance the Nation's Internet Capacity

March 17, 2010

Universities have been in the advanced-networking business for years, building systems to ship their scientists' data over the Internet and connecting partners like museums and high schools in the process.

Now the federal government has proposed expanding academe's role in the Internet further, by enlisting institutions in an effort to bring ultra-high-speed access to more community institutions.

The proposal is part of the first-ever federal blueprint for broadband, released this week. The overall goal of the 376-page plan, which covers much more than the proposal involving colleges, is to connect by 2020 the 100 million people who still lack access to broadband.

Now comes the hard part.

By one estimate, only about one-third of the country's 218,000 "community anchor" institutions—such as colleges, libraries, and hospitals—are part of academe's nonprofit networks. Specific details about how the remaining two-thirds might get connected are lacking in the plan, which was devised by the Federal Communications Commission. It's also unclear where the money would come from to buy more big digital pipes.

What's more, the plan could trigger opposition from some commercial Internet companies, says Kenneth D. Salomon, a telecommunications expert who heads the government-relations group at the law firm Dow Lohnes. Those companies "believe they have the capacity and have made the investment to provide this kind of service," he says.

Still, the FCC endorsement represents a victory for academe's networking community, which has pushed hard to shape policy ever since billions of federal dollars were made available for broadband under last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Congress had requested the FCC plan, a set of recommendations that do not carry the force of law, as part of the stimulus bill.

In trying to influence that plan, higher-education-technology groups and their allies made the case that private companies had failed to meet the needs of community anchors because the economics of bringing them high-capacity broadband weren't attractive. Instead, the technology groups called for rigging up those anchors with broadband by building on the regional and national networks that colleges have already established. That would be a costly expansion of this infrastructure, one that the research-and-education sector would like to control.

The FCC road map doesn't go so far as to put colleges in the driver's seat, but it does ensure that they'll be along for the ride.

"The higher-education-networking community is being challenged to extend and serve community-anchor institutions," says Glenn Ricart, president and chief executive of National LambdaRail, one of two main national high-speed networks for academic researchers. "How and when that all happens is still to be worked out."

The benefits of extending academe's Internet umbrella are enormous, advocates say. Take one small example: the city of Amsterdam, in upstate New York. Its hospital has "no modern connectivity," says Timothy L. Lance, president and chairman of NyserNet, a networking consortium led by the state's research universities. Modern broadband could be crucial in emergencies, he says, enabling a small hospital to diagnose a traumatic injury by sending high-resolution images quickly and without compression to a distant expert.

"They're going to be saving lives with this technology," says Peter M. Siegel, chief information officer and vice provost at the University of California at Davis.