Gig.U Delivers its Gigabit to Maine

We continue to watch the Gig.U project with interest as some universities are teaming up with providers to deliver gigabit services to selected areas, generally around high tech campuses.

One of the first project announcements has come from Orono, Maine. The University of Maine and a private company called GWI are teaming up to bring real broadband to Main Street.

The gigabit announcement came on the heels of a major announcement from Time Warner Cable - they are increasing residential speeds in Maine from 8-10 Mbps (or from 15 to 20 Mbps for those speed demons) and doubling their upstream speeds from .5 to 1 Mbps (or from 1 to 2 Mbps for those living in the fast lane).

So Orono, which is talking about speeds of 50-1000 times faster, should have quite the advantage.

We last heard of GWI due to its involvement in the Three-Ring Binder project that brought middle mile connections throughout the state to start recovering from the long-standing underinvestment from Verizon (now FairPoint). We wrote about FairPoint's attempt to kill competition before it started.

Now GWI will be building a gigabit open access network in this community that will offer much faster speeds at much lower prices than incumbent operators do. It is certainly an improvement over the status quo in the short term, as noted by the Bangor Daily News.

“We will plant the first seed in fertile economic soil,” he said. Kittredge said the Orono and Old Town area, with the University of Maine at the center, is prime real estate for getting the high-speed service off the ground and considering whether it will work in larger markets such as Bangor or rural markets in northern and eastern Maine.

For area businesses and researchers inside and outside the university, having so much more bandwidth available will open up new opportunities with far-reaching consequences, according to Kittredge.

However, we continue to be concerned about the long term ramifications of this approach. GWI will own the network and decide what the rules of the network are. Who will be running GWI in 5, 10, or 20 years? Could a major company like FairPoint or Time Warner Cable buy it and fundamentally change it? Companies come and go, but communities will need fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet for as long as we can imagine.

We are curious what the details are - what is the public contributing to this partnership? What is it getting in return? Thus far, we aren't sure.

What we do know is that the Gig.U approach is far preferable to being reliant on Time Warner Cable, at least in the short term. Probably in the medium term. And over the long term, who knows? Communities need to carefully weigh these long term decisions.


Thank You for Focusing on Open Access

The Gigabit Main Street project has several interesting qualities, and I think the collection of them makes the project unique.  The open access provisions are very important and missed by most media. I like this article because it focuses on a key point which is frequently missed: who controls the physical network.

First of all, some clarification on Gig.U and Gigabit Main Street (GMS). Gig.U is a project of the Aspen Institute and 37 land grant universities.  It is a broad-based approach to creating gigabit/sec residential and business networks in the areas around research universities.   It doesn't directly have any capital or technical resources, it mostly provides thought leadership and uses the bully pulpit of the universities to promote "ultra highspeed networks".  Gigabit Main Street is GWI's project to roll out mixed-use, open gigabit fiber to the premise networks which is beginning in, but by no means limited to the Gig.U communities of Orono and Old Town.

GWI is a private company with a project  to build mixed use gigabit residential and business networks, starting with the centers of communities on the Three Ring Binder(3RB).  The 3RB is a 1,100 mile "middle-mile" dark fiber network built as a public/private project.  The public funds came from the ARRA stimulus package.   3RB is now privately owned by Maine Fiber Company(MFC), but there are strong open access provisions.  In particular structural separation is enforced by state law. MFC is not allowed to provide lit services and must sell dark fiber to all comers on terms that are "just, reasonable and not unreasonably discriminatory."   This provision has quickly led to a middle-mile market that is highly competitive.   GWI is one of MFC's customers.

The 3RB goes through the university towns of Old Town and Orono where the land grant research University of Maine is located. Those towns have a high concentration of university students, faculty and staff. These are likely to be early adopters of gigabit residential networks. For that reason, we are following the Gig.U model and building first in those towns. The University of Maine has helped us with developing demographic information and with getting the word out to the community, but the network is entirely built with GWI funds. We have high hopes that the University will use the network to create innovative products.

We are building an gigabit active Ethernet last mile based on the open access middle mile described above. In the first towns, we making that last mile available to our competitors under strong open access terms. By strong I mean we are motivated sellers of not only lit services but also of dark fiber. We believe that we are more likely to be financially successful if our competitors are using our network. No competitor is going to be attracted to our network if the terms of the agreement don't include survivability. I can go into why we think we will be more financially successful selling on open access terms if there is interest.  If our guess is correct and strong open access is a winner, we will continue to offer strong open access on new deployments.

There seems to be significant demand for residential gigabit services. The first phase is to turn up a small section by September 1st. We are on track to have about 1,000 units connected up by that date with about 60% of them currently under contract and the rest in the final stages of contract negotiation.

The early success means that GMS has become an interesting testbed for companies looking to develop hardware, software and applications for gigabit networks in the US.  Since we want there to be reasons for our potential customers to lust after gigabit connections, we are motivated to help anyone looking to develop compelling applications for gigabit networks. Please pass the word if you know anyone looking for such a testbed.