Move over, Google! Gig.U, a new project that aims to deploy next-generation networks in the communities surrounding many research universities, was launched yesterday by nearly 30 universities. Additional universities are expected to join the project in the next few months.

Blair Levin, who developed the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and is now associated with the Aspen Institute, is the executive director of the project. Levin says, “Our mission is simple: accelerate the deployment of world-leading, next generation networks in the United States in a way that provides an opportunity to lead in the next generation of ultra-high-speed network services and applications.”

According to Levin, university communities are the perfect test beds for next-generation networks and applications. First, they combine low deployment costs with high levels of demand; second, they are likely to use massive bandwidth not just to consume, but to create.

Incentives for Private Capital
Levin expects the project to “create incentives for private capital to deploy next-generation networks in a critical mass of university communities.” Though it is not yet clear what these incentives will be, project leaders are drawing inspiration from such prior initiatives as economic development zones and spectrum auctions. A major role of the Gig.U project appears to be to create demand aggregation and to market the attractiveness of university communities to potential service providers through “a focused conversation between the demand side … and the supply side.”

Financing for the project will come from the university members, nonprofit agencies with an interest in improving university research, and private enterprises that have an interest in accelerating the development of high-speed networks and applications. Interestingly, Internet service providers will not be asked – or even permitted – to supply funding for the network.

Lev Gonick, CIO of Case Western Reserve University, one of the Gig.U members and the founder of a similar project in Cleveland, says, “We intimately understand that for American research institutions to continue to provide leadership in areas important to U.S. competitiveness, we have to act to improve the market opportunity for upgrading the networks in our university communities. We believe a small amount of investment can yield big returns for the American economy and our society.”

The Gig.U project is in some ways similar to the Google Fiber project – both envision gigabit fiber networks as test beds for new applications – but they differ in that Google is testing this approach in “what one might think of as a typical American community,” while Gig.U aims to aggregate demand in communities that present “the best targets for private investment in next-generation network services.”

The potential benefits that Gig.U members anticipate from this project include:

-Economic growth, investment and job creation
-An improved platform for research
-An improved platform for small business development
-New ways to distribute the benefits of the information revolution to all parts of the country
-New approaches to health care, education, job training and other critical social needs.

Next steps include publishing a Request for Information (RFI) from service providers and others to develop the overall approach to bringing high-speed networks to research institutions and their communities. Following that, individual universities and their communities will follow up with targeted RFPs.