Faster Networks Seek Killer Apps

Six U.S. cities link their networks to attract app developers

Photo: Glenn Ricart

Virtual Band: The U.S. government is seeking new uses for high-bandwidth home connections. This might be one: jamming with a band¿all of whose members are in different places. That's what US Ignite demonstrated in 2009. Lev Gonick, at left, is the only one really on stage.

The United States, once a leader in broadband technology, has fallen behind. Eleven countries can boast higher average broadband speeds, according to Akamai's latest State of the Internet report. But if you're lucky enough to live in a Cleveland neighborhood near Case Western Reserve University, things look different.

The 104 homes there are wired with optical fiber in an experimental network that provides impressive 1-gigabit-per-second uploads and downloads. Five other cities—Chattanooga, Tenn.; Lafayette, La.; Philadelphia; Salt Lake City; and Washington, D.C.—have similar broadband experiments providing between 100-megabit-per-second and 1-Gb/s connections to schools, businesses, and homes.

Now the U.S. government wants to knit these islands of accelerated connectivity together into a large network through a project called US Ignite, in the hope that someone will come up with killer apps that take advantage of the larger network. According to John Peha, who until recently was the government official behind the project, one of the big things holding back broader development of high-data-rate broadband in the United States is a lack of applications. "Consumer demand will only emerge if people see what's possible," he says.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Ignite's backer, plans to have the first two cities linked by the end of the year. During that period, the U.S. National Science Foundation will choose to fund six to eight projects that will demonstrate ways to use the Ignite network. Winning ideas will be awarded up to US $400 000 each.

To this point, applications have been intended only for individual city networks. Lev Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western, says Cleveland's fiber-wired neighborhood has been a hotbed of development for grassroots projects. Adjacent to the university, in a community dubbed the Case Connection Zone, telemedicine apps are becoming common, and new programs are in development, such as one that allows senior citizens to take aerobics classes together over live, connected video feeds. Dave Martin, a graduate of Case Western, turned an idea for a Connection Zone app into a start-up called Intwine Energy. The company, in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, is using smart meters and the high-bandwidth connections to figure out what works to reduce energy consumption in homes.

In Lafayette, La., a nonprofit called FiberCorps has taken a leading role in app development. Geoff Daily founded FiberCorps to develop ways to use the advanced network to benefit communities. "While we might be one of the first cities to have this physical infrastructure," he says, "we also need to focus on the social infrastructure and the role it plays in making new technologies viable."

One of FiberCorps's experimental projects is its 3D Render Farm, which allows local high school students taking 3-D modeling courses to send their render jobs to off-site servers, where images and sequences can be processed in seconds rather than in minutes or hours. His organization is also helping to set up a videoconferencing system connecting Lafayette's largest employer to its largest hospital, so that employees who fall ill can be seen by a doctor without leaving the office.

Daily says the Ignite project adds a layer of possibility to the FiberCorps projects. "Once interconnected, our fiber communities can take successful applications and scale them, proving that they work beyond the one-off model," he says.

To link the cities, Ignite is partnering with the NSF Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI). This project is intended for large-scale networking experiments that use university-based high-bandwidth infrastructure.

Project director Chip Elliot says that in all the Ignite cities, GENI is installing clusters of computers running its network protocols. Each city network will thereby be connected to the GENI backbone, which relies on two other advanced national optical networks, Internet2 and National LambdaRail.

Ignite is part of the growing momentum to use nonprofit experimental networks to pave the way for commercial infrastructure upgrades. Gig.U, for example, is another recently announced network of advanced universities, also aimed at answering the question, What would you do with robust 1 Gb/s Internet access?

Elliot—who spends all his time thinking about the next projects for Lafayette's network—says, "I have no idea what the killer apps are going to be. But helping to find them, that's about as exciting as it gets."

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