Broadband grants include $63M for 100-gigabit research network

Federal funding will provide more broadband access to BYU students in Idaho.
Federal funding will provide more broadband access to students across the nation.

Colleges and universities will be among the anchor institutions in an ultra high-speed nationwide internet network after President Obama on July 2 announced more than $760 million in grants designed to expand broadband web access.

The Departments of Commerce and Agriculture will dole out the federal broadband funding, which will go to 66 recipients, including municipalities, web service providers, libraries, and colleges, according to the White House.

Federal officials estimate that the funds will create 5,000 jobs in the nation’s slumping economy.

Among the grants that most directly affect higher education is the $62.5 million set aside for a national education research network that includes the organization Internet2, also known as the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development.

Working with other organizations and private companies such as Juniper Networks, Cisco, and Ciena, Internet2 hopes to create a nationwide “100 Gigabit per second network backbone” that would link “community anchor institutions,” including schools, community colleges, health centers, libraries, and public safety organizations, according to a July 2 Internet2 announcement.

The ultra high-speed project, called United States Unified Community Anchor Network (U.S. UCAN), would make online courses and telemedicine available at all community college anchor locations, not just two-year campuses located in urban epicenters, where broadband web access is common.

U.S. UCAN has connected 66,000 anchor institutions so far, according to Internet2 officials. The new round of federal broadband grants could grow the network to 100,000 institutions.

Doug Van Houweling, Internet2 president and CEO, said the government’s focus on expanding web access “provides an unprecedented opportunity to carry out two of our defining missions: to pioneer advanced research and education networking capabilities, and to pass on those capabilities to the public where they can introduce new possibilities into everyday life.”

Residents of western Massachusetts will have greater access to high-speed internet connections after the federal government allocated $45.4 million – along with $26.2 million from the Massachusetts Technology Cooperative – to construct more than 1,300 miles of new fiber in that region.

The government estimated that more than 1 million people in western Massachusetts could benefit from this grant, along with 44,000 businesses.

High-speed internet has become commonplace on U.S. college campuses of every size, while students and faculty members who live in small towns around campus sometimes have spotty or nonexistent broadband connections, making the basics of modern-day distance learning impossible.

Aron Goldman, an adjunct faculty member of the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, said during a March interview with eCampus News that academics and students in nearby Shutesbury, Mass.—a 10-minute drive from the university—are relegated to dial-up connections that make it difficult to complete the most basic online exercises, such as sending eMail messages with large attachments.

“It’s not a luxury,” said Goldman, who served on a panel last October that discussed sparse high-speed web connections in western Massachusetts with Gov. Deval Patrick. “It’s as essential as electricity … especially for students.”

Goldman said course-management system web sites assembled by faculty members are essentially inaccessible away from UMass Amherst’s high-speed web network.

Dial-up connections in Shutesbury and other towns in the western part of the state don’t allow students to watch video clips assigned by their professors, he said.

“It just doesn’t compute with people,” Goldman said. “When you tell someone you don’t have [broadband internet], they think you just choose not to have the service because you’re some weird radical or something. … There’s disbelief that this problem even exists.”

Students and faculty at Brigham Young University’s Rexburg, Idaho, campus will benefit from a $5 million federal grant that will “close a 38-mile gap” in the Silver Star Telephone Company’s 159-mile fiber optic network in southeast Idaho. The revamped fiber optics will connect five counties with 26,000 people to high-speed internet, according to the White House.

Altogether, the grants announced July 2 will benefit more than 2,400 K-12 schools and higher-education institutions across all 50 states, federal officials said.

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