Gig.U tries to bring more bandwidth to 7-county metro area

CorrespondentFebruary 24, 2013 


Blair Levin, head of the broadband program at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), speaks at a news conference following an open meeting of the FCC in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 16, 2010. The FCC's plan to expand high-speed Internet service might come at a cost to broadcasters, and that may signal a fight when lawmakers are asked to help turn television airwaves over to wireless competitors.


  • The man behind the plan Blair Levin

    Ties to Raleigh: Former attorney at the law firm of Parker, Poe, Adams and Bernstein, where he represented new communications ventures and local governments on public financing issues.

    Graduate: Summa Cum Laude Yale and Yale Law School

    Role at FCC: chief of staff to FCC chairman Reed Hunt from December 1993 to October 1997; starting in 2009, oversaw National Broadband Plan, a project mandated by Congress.

    Currently: A Communications & Society Fellow with the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. The Institute’s mission is to foster leadership and provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical policy issues.

— In two years, citizens of the Triangle’s seven-county metro area might be able to download a movie faster, pitch telecommuting from home to their bosses or start a new business. The reason? The Raleigh-Durham area could have new ultra-high-speed bandwidth capabilities.

The only question is: Will North Carolina grasp the opportunity to be a leader? That’s what Blair Levin asked himself 18 months ago when he started the Gig.U. (pronounced gig dot u) initiative. Through Gig.U, Levin has corralled 37 universities and their surrounding communities around the country to draw up requests for proposals for increasing bandwidth.

High-speed cable, fiber optics, and broadband, Levin says, are the new infrastructure plans that communities must build to bring better jobs, entrepreneurs and more business to the area.

The logic is as follows: When communities have more bandwidth, they’re more likely to draw businesses and investors to the area who know they can count on high-speed, high-capacity Internet capabilities for work, and young entrepreneurs who will relocate to the area.

Levin practiced as an attorney in Raleigh, before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1994 to be chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission. He later headed up the FCC’s National Broadband Plan. He started Gig.U in D.C. when he realized other nations were outpacing America when it came to broadband speed and connectivity. He’s now counting on his latest endeavor to change the way North Carolinians invest in their future.

“Gig.U. is dedicated to a mission,” Levin said. “And that’s accelerating the deployment of information. The networks won’t get any faster unless we take action.”

Marc Hoit, vice chancellor for Information Technology at NCSU and an active member of North Carolina branch of Gig.U called the NC Next Generation Networks (NC NGN, pronounced “NC Engine”), said increased bandwidth could reinvigorate the Triangle’s economy, and add to the already rich digital landscape the universities have created.

“I’ve been working with the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and Cary’s chamber to see about the interest, and the interest has been overwhelming,” Hoit said. “They believe this is a strategic piece for economic development for the region.”

Hoit said 18 months ago the 37 universities, of which Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, NCSU and Wake Forest are included, sent out requests for information about increasing bandwidth. Every major national cable and broadband provider answered the request. On Feb.1, requests for proposals went out with an April 1 deadline. Hoit said he’s sure that many providers will be offering plans.

Though some communities, like Seattle and parts of South Chicago. have undertaken a project like Gig.U., the Triangle’s seven county metro area would be the first multiple municipality to undertake an increase in bandwidth. Hoit said that’s what makes the project so exciting.

“We’re first to market,” said Hoit. “That means we can help define how to make this happen, how to help businesses and citizens in undeserved areas.”

It’s the underserved areas – not the universities – who’d initially benefit from more bandwidth.

“The university already has outstanding connectivity,” Hoit said.

The average connectivity in a home is 10-20 mega bits, but NCSU is connected at 10,000 mega bits, Hoit said, with internal campus connectivity at 1,000, and wireless capabilities at 50 mega bits.

Services follow speed

Schools such as NCSU need all those bits to email large genomic files, or climate data. John Hodges-Copple, director of regional planning for the Triangle J Council of Governments and North Carolina’s Region J, said the average North Carolinian could use that same speed – they just don’t know it yet.

“With more connectivity [the things people do now] would be able to be done more quickly,” said Hodges-Copple, who’s worked with Hoit on this project. “As you get greater capacity, you then get new types of services. It’s not primarily about what we’re doing now as consumers, it’s about unlocking additional resources.”

And those additional resources would come, initially, at no cost to the average person.

“The businesses that respond to our request for proposals would have to show what they’re willing to invest,” said Hodges-Copple. “The advantage to them is the use of a community’s assets at a defined price, or understand a demand that’s likely to be there.” As an example, Hodges-Copple said a broadband providers would make use of a city’s fiber optic cables that coordinate traffic lights.

“There may be a 100 strands,” said Hodges-Copple. “And a certain area may only be using one.” Later, the companies could charge for their service.

Hodges-Copple said the Raleigh area could be the next Kansas City, referring to the Google Fiber project. In 2011, cities (including Raleigh) bid to host Google’s new fiber-optic communication network that promised to be 100 times faster than tradition broadband Internet. Kansas City won the bid, and has seen in influx of investors and entrepreneurs relocating to the area.

Hoit said that it will take about 18 months to implement any infrastructure changes, but he and Hodges-Copple are optimistic to see the proposals.

“We’re known as a tech hub with creative class employment,” said Hodges-Copple. “Between the anchor institutions of the universities, we ought to be a prime location for these kinds of efforts.”

Harvey Schmitt, the president and CEO of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce agrees. He said that business people with whom he’s talked are excited about the idea of more connectivity.

“I met with some healthcare executives a few weeks ago,” Schmitt said. “And they said with this sort of connectivity, Raleigh could become the leading telemedicine hub in the country. With high degrees of bandwidth, Raleigh could be in robust operational conditions.”

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