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Ultra High-Speed Internet

By Mark Green

Most of the main 100-gigabit Internet2 backbone is in place in the United States and elsewhere, but building it out for commercial service is expensive.

Ultra-high-speed Internet service gets built … slowly, it turns out. Access hundreds of times faster than today’s typical connection is, indeed, coming to Kentucky. In fact, some high-intensity users already have it at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, near the state’s only node on the national fiber-optic 100-gigabit Internet backbone.

UofL, which began building its campus fiber optic network in 1999, is served by several 10-gigabit connections to the Internet2 backbone access node at a secret (for security purposes) location in downtown Louisville. An 80-mile circuit to UK’s campus provides 10 Gb access there also.

Many urban home and business customers today have basic broadband, which the FCC defines as download transmission speeds of at least 4 megabits per second with uploads of 1 Mb. A gigabit is 1 billion bits per second or 1,000 megabits; the general 1 Gb “ultra-high-speed” service ambition being pursued around the nation is 250 times faster than basic broadband.

Those highest-intensity UofL and UK users? They’re at 2,500 times the speed of your broadband. Internet2 service will build out to the rest of us when the marketplace calculates that it is financially sustainable. The nation’s first commercial service, a pilot project by Google Fiber, is just about to become available.

A top option for some business users today is T3, or DS3, service that operates at up to 45Mb speeds, but the cost begins at around $1,000 a month for customers near a provider and can be several times that. The IT community’s vision is that tomorrow’s 1Gb service will be only about $100 a month.

After the commonwealth’s two primary research university campuses, next in line for Internet2 links are Kentucky’s other universities, then major community anchor institutions and finally, business and residential customers – when public and private officials who’ve been working on the problem can discover a market-based route to financial viability.

Crucial elements are a dense enough concentration of high-usage users, with the ability and willingness to pay for premium service, in an area where existing infrastructure and physical characteristics allow cost-efficient installation of a network.

Making the leap to … what?

Higher speed equals higher volume, allowing exchange of very large databases, complex scientific work files and access to remote computing systems – if there is ultra-high-speed Internet connectivity at both ends and all points between.

Speeding up computer networks will speed up breakthroughs in science and business, according to IT experts. It is expected to foster economic development, research collaboration and access to better medical care and education. Internet2 service will mean crystal clear phone calls and other audio, large-format high-definition video streaming, and lighting-fast downloads. It will allow instantaneous monitoring of complex networks such as “smart grid” electric utility services. Knowledge workers would have no need to live physically near an employer.

But the exact impact can’t be known beforehand.

“We know it will be different,” said Bo Lowrey, assistant director of communications services with UofL Information Technology. “We just don’t know how it will be different.”

Exactly what happens will rely on the creativity of individuals in the state’s business community, said Vince Killen, chief information officer at the University of Kentucky.

Internet2 service, he said, could expand opportunities for small to midsize businesses that need to move large amounts of data around the nation, or need access to stronger, faster computation power. Individual smaller companies lack the resources to create their own high-speed system or to access a distant system.

That’s a problem not just in Kentucky, which is why several national level initiatives have been launched in the past year or so to generate collaboration. UofL and UK are participants in Gig.U, an effort by U.S. research universities to accelerate deployment of next generation networks and services.

A big part of what Gig.U does is gather market information to pitch to potential providers to persuade them that providing Internet service at data speeds of 1 gigabyte a second would be a good investment. Promisingly, a private company calling itself Gigabit Squared announced in May that it had raised $200 million specifically to invest in creating such services.

Other programs are working to advance various pieces of Internet2 technology. The Broadband Technical Opportunity Program (BTOP) was created by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the federal stimulus bill); it paid for Louisville’s node on the backbone. The U.S. Unified Community Anchor Network (USUCAN) is building a case for connecting entities such as law enforcement, hospitals, libraries and school systems.

The Kentucky Regional Optical Network, a team effort by UofL, UK and the Council of Postsecondary Education, enables UofL and UK to qualify for major federal research grants and has the goal of connectivity for the state’s P-20 education community.

Part of the problem is that no one knows what it will cost. Efforts to figure that out are ongoing, Lowrey said.

The speed of light – if connectivity is right

Lots of fiber-optic cable was laid all over the world beginning about 20 years ago; and it can operate literally at light speed, transmitting vast amounts of digital information. Computers, switching equipment and other technology that can create, send and receive data ever faster are still being created. Even more difficult is the matter of getting it deployed. Bridging the “final mile” by hardwire to end users – whether business, residential or academic – has proven to be one of the highest hurdles for market-based service to clear, especially as speeds increase.

“The medium doesn’t change, but the capability of it does based on the equipment at the ends of it,” Lowrey said. He’s been at UofL for a year and spent 28 years with Jefferson County Public Schools, much of that time working to effect ever faster and better data systems.

The challenge is putting that physical infrastructure in place to provide ultra-high-speed access and service for others in a market-based financially sustainable manner. Around the nation and elsewhere, some communities are seeking to build their own backbones while others are working to make it easier for the private sector.

The New York Times has reported that South Korea later this year will complete an ultra-high-speed system serving the entire nation.

In 2011, Google Fiber chose Kansas City from eager U.S. applicants as the community where it would build a commercial service network, and the IT community has been waiting and watching closely since. In late July, Google Fiber unveiled a service menu that includes 1Gb service and Google TV for $120 a month or gigabit service with four 1Gb ports for $70 a month; a two-year contract gains waiver of the $300 installation fee. A third low-end option requires the installation fee, but then 5Mb upload and 1Mb download service is free.

Mark Green is editorial director of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]