Campuses look to ‘dark fiber’ for connectivity

Fiber is reliable in inclement weather, IT officials say.

Students and faculty members at Chicago’s Columbia College have to transfer data-heavy files the old-fashioned way: By foot.

The private campus with 12,000 students and 2,000 academic staff in the urban Chicago setting has struggled to bring high-capacity internet bandwidth to its 15 buildings in recent years, leaving students with large video files without a reliable way to share their work over eMail.

Columbia’s technology officials said Oct. 26 that the college would use “dark fiber,” high-speed fiber optic infrastructure already in place underneath Chicago’s streets, to boost the school’s web speeds and allow for enormous files to be easily moved from computer to computer.

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“No one should have to walk anything anywhere,” said Bernadette McMahon, associate vice president and chief information officer at Columbia, which is among the country’s largest art schools. “Our students deserve better. … The majority of our academic programs are digital in nature, and students need to be able to access and move large files over the network.”

Columbia, unlike campuses in sparsely populated rural areas, can’t lay its own fiber network without involving the city, because the web infrastructure would have to be built near and underneath city buildings and businesses.

Dark fiber – already used by schools like Northwestern University – is high-quality fiber optic wire lying dormant, or unlit, until a college or business wants to use it.

“Dark fiber gives us so many more options,” said Richard Piotrowski, Columbia College’s director of IT infrastructure. When the dark fiber network is made live in February, he said, IT officials will for the first time be able to control the network’s bandwidth from a central location.

Columbia’s current internet network is controlled from building to building, Piotrowski said.

And if inclement weather interrupts fiber optic service at a single Columbia campus building, he said, the outage won’t impact the other 14 buildings, as it has before officials considered dark fiber.

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