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Mayor Mike McGinn discusses the Pioneer Square broadband project with City of Seattle CTO Bill Schrier

Mike McGinn has worked hard to bring high-speed Internet access to parts of Pioneer Square. Now, the Seattle mayor is turning his attention to other parts of the city.

The mayor, along with University of Washington president Michael Young and others, will announce a new plan Monday “to bring high-speed fiber to the neighborhoods surrounding the university,” according to a media advisory.

The plan is part of Gig.U, an initiative supported by 37 universities to accelerate broadband access in the communities in and around universities.

University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska, who will be on hand at Monday’s press conference and is familiar with Gig.U, said that the idea is to try to build unique private-public partnerships that bring true broadband to communities. At the same time, it will attempt to break the stranglehold that telecommunications companies have held on the growth of high-speed Internet access in the country.

Lazowska notes that the U.S. is “dramatically lagging” many nations in the widespread adoption of broadband, and he thinks Gig.U is in a position to do something about it.

Ed Lazowska

“The telcos have failed America. We have third-world broadband,” said Lazowska. “The Federal government has not acted.  The universities and their communities are going to give it a try.”

Gig.U is led by by Blair Levin, who oversaw the National Broadband Plan while working with the Federal Communications Commission. It is also being supported by the City of Seattle, with CTO Bill Schrier alluding to the effort during the Technology Alliance luncheon in late October.

The goal, Schrier said, is to make available 500 miles of fiber from the City of Seattle and University of Washington for private use as part of the Gig.U initiative. In his remarks, Schrier said the effort is an example of what the city and university are doing “to encourage innovation.”

Lazowska, for one, thinks universities are the perfect place for this sort of broadband experimentation. He noted that the University of Washington brought ARPANET — the forerunner to the modern Internet — to the Pacific Northwest in 1980 when there were fewer than 200 computers connected to it. The UW also was instrumental in Internet2 and other efforts.

“In short, universities are the ‘anchor institutions’ through which each generation of broadband technology has been projected out,” he said.

Because of the lobbying efforts of the large telecom companies, however, Lazowska said that critical broadband technologies don’t always reach consumers or businesses. Americans tend to pay high prices for slow speeds, he said.

“So, those who believe that that actual high speed broadband is critical infrastructure for the 21st century need to find some uniquely U.S. approaches that involve working with the private telecom sector in new ways,” he said.  “Many university presidents and CIOs definitely see broadband as critical infrastructure for our communities and are 100 percent supportive of universities providing leadership to help advance our global competitiveness — that’s what research universities are supposed to do.  This is the Gig.U story that people are responding to.”

All of that said, Lazowska said he’s not sure if the effort will work. However, he noted that it is worth trying.

“If it succeeds then it will have started helping the U.S. catch up in a way that is not happening on the current playing field.  If some communities succeed but some don’t, then it will help us understand what works and what doesn’t to attract forward-looking investment capital,” he said.

Here’s a closer look at the Gig.U initiative.

Gig-U RFI September 2011

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