University Communities and the Next American Upgrade

Knowledge is humanity’s first and final frontier. From the Edenic exodus to flights beyond earth, our mythic narratives reveal that going where no one has gone before to learn what no one has known before drives us like no other quest.

That quest, for many millennium largely driven by spiritual needs, has become core to economic and social progress. Historian Steven Johnson credits the exchange of ideas in the 17th century coffeehouses of London for the innovations that led to the Industrial Revolution and, since that time, knowledge exchange has been a critical catalyst to improving how we work and live. In the last century, the U.S. exploited its leadership in knowledge exchange—headquartered in institutions of higher education—to grow its world-leading economy. That economic leadership is under threat but, as they have been in the past, university communities can provide the springboard for a new generation of American economic leadership.

To understand that threat and opportunity, it is critical to understand the role new inputs play in economic growth and that knowledge exchange has become the most significant input in every aspect of our economy and society. Throughout human history, economic growth accelerates when we replace incumbent inputs with new ones. Changes in power sources (from animal to steam engines to electricity) or transportation modes (from canals to rails to cars) caused dramatic growth in the economies that adopted them and long-term advantages to early adopters.

Changes in information exchange inputs, however, promise to trump all other replacements in impact.

Information revolution

Over the past 20 years, increases in computing power and the ability to retrieve and store data, combined with the mobile and data communications revolution, have altered how we exchange information, providing growth throughout the economy and the cornerstone of its fastest growing parts. Today, improvements in every sector are dependent on, and benefit from, improved information and the replacement of physical inputs with inputs that ride on chips, bits and bandwidth. The importance for our future of how we utilize and grow these inputs cannot be overstated.

In many respects, the U.S. is well positioned. It is without peer in launching the iconic global companies that deliver that economy’s building blocks, from chips, to network infrastructure, to software, to applications, to device design and integration.

Much of its leadership stems from being the Internet’s birthplace. As the U.S. led the world in every relevant sector in the early days, we developed an ecosystem in which improvements in our networks drove improvements in applications, which drove improvements in devices, which, in turn, drove improvements in networks. This created a virtuous cycle into which we created the best human capital for innovating within what has become the broadband ecosystem.

Future leadership, however, is not assured.

Leadership in bandwidth?

While American innovation in chips, operating systems and applications continues, the U.S. doesn’t enjoy leadership in the underlying bandwidth that fuels this virtuous cycle. No single metric captures the situation fairly, but all suggest danger ahead. Recent Ookla data says the U.S. is 34th in download speed, 42nd in upload speed and 38th in quality; an Akamai study shows that of the 100 fastest cities in the world, only eight are in the U.S., with our fastest broadband speed only clocking in at 77th.

With Big Data as the next driver of innovation and commerce, and with developments of bandwidth hogs such as genetic sequencing holding untold promise, removing bandwidth as a barrier to innovation and real-time high-performance collaboration will be critical for economic leadership in many sectors. When that day comes, having second-tier networks will put the U.S. at a significant disadvantage. Worse, by the time we recognize that that day’s arrival, we will be too far behind to catch up.

So what do we do? We can’t duplicate the speeds of world leaders like Korea or Japan. Differences in density and market structure make their paths impractical for the U.S. We shouldn’t blame our incumbent communications providers. Their networks simply reflect current consumer preferences and problematic Wall Street pressure.

Rather, we need a strategy that removes bandwidth as a constraint to innovation. We need a strategy that will kickstart our entry into by the high-bandwidth economy by putting world-leading bandwidth into the hands of those who, if they have the bandwidth, will invent the new forms of medicine, education, business services, entertainment and other services that can only be provided when current bandwidth constraints disappear. When they invent it, markets will come.

New strategy

Last summer, 37 leading research universities and their communities responded to this bandwidth challenge by forming Gig.U, with the mission of accelerating that deployment of next-generation networks and services by using university communities as test-beds. Last fall, Gig.U reached out to all in the broadband ecosystem, such as service providers, equipment providers, and system integrators, to determine the best way to meet that challenge. The almost 60 responses taught us two fundamental lessons.

First, any community that wants its residents to have access to a network that delivers world-leading bandwidth can do so. The barrier is not technology or economics. The barrier is organization; specifically, organizing demand and improved use of underutilized assets, such as rights of way, dark fiber, or in more rural areas, spectrum. The responses identified a multitude of ways local communities can improve the private investment case by lowering investment and risk, and increasing revenues for private players willing to upgrade or build new networks without budget outlays from the local government.

Second, the responses confirmed that university communities have the easiest organizing task and greatest upside. Their density, demographics and demand make the current economics more favorable for an upgrade than other communities. For example, the high percentage of the population in university communities living in multiple dwelling units makes the economics of an upgrade far more favorable than for communities composed largely of single-family homes. With the growing importance of Big Data for the economy and the society, university communities are the natural havens for such enterprises to be born and prosper. Through the Gig.U process, our communities are already exploring more than a half-dozen paths to achieve an upgrade; paths that will be replicable for others and will deliver a major step forward in providing America a strategic broadband advantage.

The beauty of an economy whose growth is based on greater knowledge is that, unlike one based on materials extraction, its prospects are as limitless as our mythic frontier. In such an economy, our nation’s greatest assets are our institutions of higher education. Thus, while it is often said, it is not said nearly enough that our institutions of higher education are the envy of the world. Anyone who hopes that America’s economic success in the 20th century is repeated in the 21st, should hope U.S. higher education remains the object of envy.

It should be irrelevant to most Americans whether the size of our mansions in Beverly Hills, our yachts in West Palm, or the diamond rings on 5th Avenue inspire similar envy. But for the sake of most Americans, we should also want the world to envy our bandwidth and what happens when we put the world-leading tools for high-performance knowledge exchange in our world-leading university communities.

Blair Levin is executive director of the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project or Gig.U. This group of more than 30 leading research universities from across the U.S. aims to accelerate the deployment of ultra high-speed networks to leading U.S. universities and their surrounding communities. Levin is a Communications & Society Fellow with the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. He formerly served on the Federal Communications Commission, where he oversaw the development of a National Broadband Plan. Before that, he served for eight years as an analyst at Legg Mason and Stifel Nicolaus.


Comments are closed.