“A single point of failure won’t affect the campus as a whole,” said Piotrowski, who worked with service provider CDW-G before committing to the dark fiber network. “It’ll really increase reliability with our network.”

Not even a cut fiber will shut down Columbia’s web connection.

If a wire is damaged or severed, the campus network will automatically reroute computer data around the fiber ring and make sure students and faculty members don’t lose valuable files.

“You have to have that redundancy there in case something happens to the fiber,” McMahon said. “We needed a network that will still have power,” even when underground fiber is damaged by construction, for example.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced in September 2010 that schools and libraries could use federal technology funds known as the eRate to tap the unused, dark fiber near their buildings.

FCC President Julius Genachowski said last year that schools that use federal money to launch fiber optic networks could make the internet connections available to nearby communities after school hours. The FCC’s dark fiber order is part of the Obama administration’s national broadband plan.

Some school districts could save up to half of what it would cost to hire an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to set up a network, according to FCC estimates.

Higher education’s experimentation with dark fiber networks began in the late-1990s, when research schools, including the University of Maryland, the University of Southern California, and the University of Washington, bought large sections of unlit fiber optics in urban areas surrounding their campuses to connect medical centers to remote buildings.

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