Getting Out of the Broadband Box 1

Today’s official launch of Gig.U, a consortium of universities to facilitate next-generation community broadband opportunities, has tremendous potential.  John Markoff has a story about the launch in today’s New York Times.  Here’s why I’m hopeful for this project.

Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st century.  Easy to say, hard to fully appreciate. It’s especially difficulty to envision broadband scenarios different than the ones we’re used to: commercial access providers like phone and cable companies giving us multi-megabit connections for fast web browsing and media streaming.  That limits the scope of innovation, especially the innovations with the most social and business impact.  It also feeds into the policy gridlock.  We’re still playing out a set of regulatory debates that started a decade ago, when Google was still private and Facebook didn’t exist.  In a sector this fast-moving, how can the landscape of 2001 possibly describe the world of 2021, let alone 2011?

So we need to get out of the box of current thinking.  It’s next to impossible to do that without examples of different models.  The trouble is that alternative broadband approaches and creative applications that take advantage of ultra-fast connectivity have largely been stifled in the U.S.  There are many reasons for this.  Whichever one focuses on, we’re going to have a hard time leading the next wave of broadband innovation without vibrant experimentation outside the mainstream service offerings.

That’s where Gig.U comes in.  These major research universities have extremely high-speed connectivity for their research and education networks. With a few notable exceptions, universities have focused inwardly on using those capabilities for scientific experiments and related activities.  Gig.U will look to use the universities as community anchors for innovative ulta-highspeed broadband opportunities in the surrounding areas.  There are a few other programs with similar aims, such as Google’s community fiber pilot in Kansas City and some of the “anchor institutions” that received funding from the BTOP broadband stimulus grant program.  Gig.U is the first that brings together a critical mass of institutions to plan globally while acting locally.  That’s a cause for hope.  Another is that the leader of the effort is my friend Blair Levin, an extraordinary public servant who spearheaded the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and also has extensive experience as a financial analyst and business advisor.

I’m not currently involved with Gig.U, nor is my institution (the University of Pennsylvania).  The project is just getting off the ground, and it has major challenges in reaching its goals.  It’s great to see effort going in this direction, though.  Somehow, some way, we need to get out of the current broadband box.  Broadband can be a catalyst for innovation, investment, job creation, community redevelopment, health care, transportation, education, and more.  We understand the technology to deploy the next generation of broadband infrastructure.  Now we need to understand what to do with it, and how best to get from here to there.