Gig.U: pro-actively promoting next-generation networks

Monday 29 August 2011 | 15:10 CET | Market Commentary

A group of 29 American universities has formed an alliance to stimulate the roll-out of gigabit fibre-optic networks on campuses and in nearby residential areas. The Gig.U alliance was launched on 27 July and is led by the Aspen Institute and its telecoms expert Blair Levin. Another three universities jointed the alliance recently. The main goal is to drive innovation in and around the universities and naturally increase the role of research. The participating universities are not from the Ivy league but are based in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Alaska and Hawaii which lack a dense fibre infrastructure. Levin worked previously at the FCC where he led development of the National Broadband Plan, a project still awarding grants for broadband networks throughout the US.

A Request for Information (RFI) was sent on 18 August to a number of providers and other organisations which may be interested in participating in the roll-out. They have until November to respond. The RFI covers a number of Gig.U goals:

  • The primary aim of stimulating the deployment of next-generation networks among the alliance members in order to drive economic growth.
  • Identifying new possibilities for network design, operation and financing.
  • Investigating how the members’ relationship with their surrounding areas will influence interest from the private sector in participating.
  • Looking at how the cooperation between members can improve the NGN business case for the private sector.

Gig.U is preceded by two university projects in the US. The Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio) started already in late 2009 with a project for 25,000 connections on its campus. Only 100 have been realized to date, in the 'Case Connection Zone'. Case Western is also participating in Gig.U. Its CPE (customer premises equipment) is supplied by Eindhoven-based Genexis. The other example is Stanford University (Palo Alto, California – not a member of Gig.U), where Google is building 850 connections, with Sonic.net as ISP. The first customers have already been connected and will receive a year of free services (excluding connections costs).

Gig.U (full name: The University Community Next Generation Innovation Project) is special for a number of reasons. First because residents nearby will also receive services at 1Gbps. While many people are still hesitant over whether a ‘gig’ is really needed,  the idea that unlimited bandwidth is necessary for the end-user, economy and society to profit fully is gaining ground. Even more notable is that Gig.U is not a fund, but intends to have the private sector cover the full costs of the roll-out. The 32 universities are offering a major playing field where providers can generate economies of scale. Furthermore, the schools are already connected to a fibre backbone, Internet2, eliminating the need to arrange backhaul.

How to lay a fibre network when the incumbent is unwilling or insufficiently active is a question worldwide for project developers. At the same time new cooper and cable technologies are undermining the business case, and existing providers point to limited demand for high bandwidths. There are also a number of initiatives known already to have collapsed due to over-optimistic projections (with the associated debts) or financial mismanagement. 

Recet developments have shown there are new possibilities for increasing the chances of success:

  • Government support is a possible solution and is already available in countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the US (local networks), Australia (the National Broadband Network), New Zealand, the UK and Germany (see our article 'Government subsidy brings broadband to the Black Forest’).
  • New deployment methods such as using sewers (eg Jelcer in the Netherlands), the water system (CityFibre in England) or electricity poles (Virgin Media in England).
  • Bundling demand. Reggefiber in the Netherlands already has made a name for itself with this technique, and it’s now getting off the ground in other parts of the world. It makes much more sense to start digging only once 30, 40 or 50 percent of the potential subscribers have signed up. Such a project is underway in Lancaster (England) (see our article 'B4RN: limited broadband availability drives demand in rural areas’), while Conneaut Telephone Company is another pioneer in Ohio (roll-out starts when at least 40% of potential users have signed up). ECFiber.net is bundling demand with a FTTH roll-out in 23 towns in Vermont, using a minimum of 25 percent sign-up.
  • Gig.U is an example of another way to increase the chance of success. Similar to demand bundling, the university creates a situation of guaranteed supply, acting as an ‘anchor tenant’ for the network with a minimum number users. The same as government support, it can help remove certain barriers such as paperwork for starting construction. At the same time, Gig.U is pro-actively contacting ISPs and asking them to work with it. The question is whether operators such as Verizon and AT&T will bite, but the earlier mentioned Sonic.net (which is deploying gigabit FTTH on its own in California) is definitely a candidate for Gig.U.

The simple conclusion is that innovation pays. In the Netherlands the GIPPa platform is investigating additional possibilities and idealy GIPPa and Gig.U could share information in future. Gig.U adds an interesting option to the range of possibilities: a pro-active initiative by the universities, similar to a government. This is a lesson worldwide for governments, which can do more to support the market than just handing out permits. This is true not just for FTTH roll-out but also for the launch of new (LTE) mobile networks.

Telecompaper is organising on 12 October the conference Breedband 2011 in The Hague. Financing is among the topics that will be discussed. 

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