Indiana Universities Leading Broadband Investments On- and Off-Campus

States October 21st, 2008

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Broadband Census Indiana

This is the 17th of a series of articles surveying the state of broadband, and broadband data, within each of the United States and its territories.

(Update, 10/22: Also see “Indiana’s Larry Landis: Mapping Provides a Guide for Broadband Policy,” BroadbandCensus.com, October 22, 2008.)

October 21 – Universities in Indiana are seeking to stay ahead of a potential traffic jam in broadband demand through investments in broadband infrastructure, cutting-edge research and rural connectivity in the Hoosier state.

According to a recent study by EDUCAUSE, U.S. universities are at the leading edge of an explosion in broadband supply and demand: availability at research institutions increased by 60% in 2007.

A network of universities in Indiana has set out to build one of the world’s premier fiber networks known as I-Light. It would support enhanced internet access in Indiana beyond university campuses, too.

In part, campus bandwidth demand is driven by music and movie downloaders seeking the next Bit Torrent tool. But that is only part of the story. The EDUCAUSE report cited faculty research as the key demand driver for the highest bandwidth-usage activity, particularly large data sets, data visualizations and other applications.

In fact, it was long before the original peer-to-peer file-sharing service Napster that Dave Jent was first facing bandwidth limits at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, in 1998.

Seeking faster connections for researchers who needed to transfer large data sets between Indianapolis and the Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) campus – and dissatisfied with the cost estimates offered by private vendors – Jent and a team from IUB’s information technology office decided to build a network themselves.

The state assembly, led by then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon (he served from 1997 to 2003), supported the fiber connection between Indianapolis, Bloomington and Purdue.

The resulting I-Light network would also connect the universities to the global Internet2 network, which continues to be managed by the Global Research Network Operations Center at Indiana University.

The late Sen. David Ford and Indiana University President Michael McRobbie were instrumental in assuring that “coupled with the robust private provider networks in Indiana, the state has developed one of the most extensive robust backbone presences [I-Light] in the nation,” says Indiana Utility Commissioner Larry Landis.

Jent, now associate vice president for networks at Indiana University, hasn’t stopped building: the I-Light network now connects 32 higher education campuses and the network operations center will be the centerpiece of another network, Omnipop, designed to connect regional institutions beyond the state.

I-Light and other fiber broadband networks are proving critical for the research needs of Indiana’s education system.

Marianne Chitwood, I-Light’s Operations Manager, says that the value of the I-Light network is now clear within the higher education network and she uses Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, as an example: “Earlham was depending on a few T1 connections before I-Light reached the college, and now we see them utilizing bandwidth levels that could not have been possible with those old connections.”

While Indiana’s University fiber networks have been key to facilitating premier research and vast amounts of data transfer on campus, they are also important to the delivery of fast and affordable broadband to “off-campus” Indiana households.

According to Jent, “you don’t have to go too far out of town for broadband services to run out, especially in the southern parts of Indiana where the state is behind in deploying broadband…. But the existence of our network can make business plans for commercial operators reaching rural residents in Indiana more realistic.”

Jent describes a unique collaboration in Indiana between the universities, the state government, and private sector broadband providers that is spearheaded by the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System (IHETS), a membership consortium that provides technology services to educational institutions in the state. IHETS is able to leverage the expertise and infrastructure of its member institutions to help lower the cost for commercial providers to extend broadband beyond the educational networks.

When it comes to extending these networks, there is a great amount of potential for wireless solutions that rely on high-bandwidth fiber backhaul to deliver needed connectivity to rural Indiana, said Jent. “The further we can push the fiber infrastructure, the easier it will be for wireless providers to reach remote consumers and businesses,” He said.

Meanwhile, when it comes to cutting-edge research and development of the wireless technologies needed to reach rural Indiana, the Hoosier state’s universities are also on the front lines.

Since 2005, Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, has been known as one of the nation’s top wireless campuses, a concept that extends to the university’s research focus, which has BSU researchers experimenting with forward-looking wireless applications and cutting edge WiMAX technologies.

Robert Yadon, a Ball State professor of information and communication sciences and the director of the Applied Research Institute at the university, describes how the school became a model for on-campus wireless research and applications: “Strategically, it makes sense if you’re going to extend your campus beyond the bricks and mortar and into the university community and beyond. When WiMAX became available, initially in Europe, that’s when we made the early move to utilize a new frequency [802.16e] and began testing and mapping the coverage area.”

With WiMAX broadband systems in place and in use, BSU researchers were then challenged to measure and map the footprint of the experimental technology, so members of the university’s geographical information system team traveled to Europe for certification in WiMAX mapping, the first in the United States.

Today, researchers at BSU are busy gathering data to determine the success of their foray into WiMAX technology and its viability as larger-scale connectivity solution.

Jent believes such wireless solutions could be key to universal broadband access in Indiana, an objective that he sees the state being able to achieve in the near future through the cooperation of the universities, the state government and the private sector.

“There are people who are building big data networks in Indiana today,” Jent reports. “They are building in areas that have not been traditionally served and I believe we can cover the whole state in about four or five years.”

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