An inside look at US Ignite, America's broadband future

The White House launched US Ignite in June, a U.S. government-backed effort to spur development of advanced broadband applications. Here's a look at how the initiative got started, where high-speed fiber networks are rolling out, and what's next for the cities involved.
Written by Mari Silbey, Contributor

The White House launched US Ignite -- a government-backed effort to spur development of advanced broadband applications -- with much fanfare at the beginning of summer. But what was promoted as a linchpin broadband initiative quickly came under fire from some influential technology reporters for its lack of attention to last-mile Internet access issues. Because of very real disagreement about broadband access policy, and the complicated context surrounding US Ignite, there continues to be debate and confusion around the program's aims. According to officials, however, its premise is hardly controversial. US Ignite wants to encourage the development and testing of new broadband applications. Its goal is to help drive nationwide adoption of new high-speed network technology.

Says US Ignite executive Joseph Kochan:

We need more advanced networking capabilities and higher bandwidth in the hands of more people as fast as possible because that is what's going to drive whether or not the United States is on top of the next iteration of the Internet... We have to have the applications, and they have to come from here, and that's what we believe.

As a non-profit public/private partnership, US Ignite is answerable to a large number of stakeholders, including research universities, large private enterprises, and dozens of communities that have invested in their own local network infrastructure. The organization is also charting new territory, and relying on a strategically lean leadership team. All of these factors create potential hurdles to success; the possibility that US Ignite will become mired in bureaucracy, distracted by policy debates, and hamstrung by a lack of dedicated human resources necessary to execute on the program's ambitious goals.

Success, however, may be all about how you define it. US Ignite doesn't have to succeed on every front. It's creating a laboratory environment, and for every experiment that fails, there's the hope that participants will nonetheless make valuable discoveries. Out of the entire initiative, if a few critical applications emerge to improve medical care, or enable cleaner energy, or drive advancements in emergency preparedness, then arguably US Ignite will have proven its worth. It has the potential to be a foundation for widespread innovation, and to create a major impact on broadband in America.

The origin story and US Ignite's "GENI" in a bottle

US Ignite began in part as an outgrowth of the Global Environment for Network Innovation (GENI) program. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), GENI includes both physically connected high-speed broadband pipes, and OpenFlow-enabled, virtualized networks. Computer scientists use GENI to test different types of network configurations that are optimized for different types of online activity. In some ways, the standard Internet defaults to a lowest-common-denominator setting so that the largest number of devices and applications can make use of it. However, by creating contained, virtualized environments, users can customize network settings -- like security and latency -- for different scenarios as needed. Those customizations enable significantly higher performance, and in some cases, entirely new network applications.

While the NSF supports GENI research and development, it isn't set up to fund the exploration of practical, real-world application deployments. For that reason, the NSF and White House administration officials decided to encourage the creation of US Ignite as an independent organization. US Ignite partners not only with the NSF, but also companies like Cisco and Verizon, and communities that have a track record of investing in telecommunications infrastructure. The structure is designed to combine financial subsidies with motivated experts committed to commercializing new applications. Commercialization means ensuring that applications not only work in a small controlled environment, but also that they scale to deliver financial profits and/or contribute to the social good.

For now, most of the US Ignite partners are only associated with each other very loosely. But US Ignite plans to pair up resources across the partner spectrum so that companies and communities come together in ways that accelerate application development. Out of today's isolated pockets of research and network expansion, US Ignite intends to create a GENI-enabled nationwide testbed for next-generation Internet applications.

Partner spotlight: Urbana's raw potential and uncertain road ahead

The pilot partners for US Ignite include 25 cities, and 15 commercial entities. Through these partners, US Ignite is dedicated to "fostering the creation" of 60 new applications that take advantage of ultra-fast broadband. Some of the participating partners have a head start on development, but others are only beginning to contemplate how they will contribute to the US Ignite mission.

Chattanooga, Tennessee already has a gigabit network in place, and smart grid technologies that leverage its high-speed connectivity. Lafayette, Louisiana has committed to creating a Living Lab for Health Innovation based on the efforts of local organizations that have already begun experimenting with the community's fiber infrastructure. On the other hand, Urbana, Illinois is still in the early stages of high-speed network deployment through an initiative called Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B). Urbana has significant resources at its disposal, including a well-established local talent pool fed by the region's universities, and one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, Blue Waters, which is scheduled to come online in 2012. But UC2B has only started the process of prioritizing efforts around US Ignite.

Jon Gant, part of UC2B's executive leadership, and a University of Illinois professor, says the Urbana region suggests a tale of two cities. There is the university community, including his school's prestigious and nationally renowned engineering department. On the other hand, there are also areas in Urbana with some of the nation's highest poverty and unemployment rates. To address this issue, at least in part, a consortium of regional institutions applied for and received government funding in 2010 to extend the area's broadband infrastructure. UC2B is now putting that money to work across a nine-by-nine mile grid of land. It has a goal of passing roughly 4,700 homes with high-speed Internet service.

At the heart of Urbana's new network are seven basic fiber rings, which are now almost complete. From those rings, UC2B is running gigabit fiber service out to a host of community anchor facilities. The plan is to have those connections fully deployed by mid-November, and then from those anchor facilities, UC2B will extend further infrastructure out to residential locations.

The combination of residential and university-centered infrastructure means that UC2B can not only provide broadband service to new customers, it can also set up its own local research environment for testing high-speed applications in a real-world setting. However, while Gant is enthusiastic about the local network, he also points out the need to reach a larger audience when conducting research. In other words, he says UC2B needs a national testing ground, just what US Ignite promises to provide.

With US Ignite, we're able to connect to a whole network of communities, a network of users, so instead of having an opportunity to have access to, let's say, 2,500 households, and two and three hundred community anchor institutions, now all of a sudden you've got not only our 2,500, but you've got the group out in Cleveland... or you'll have the Chattanooga folks... In terms of trying to test out new ideas, or the applications, you've got a larger cross-section of people that voluntarily can try out these new applications, and I think that makes a huge difference.

Gant stresses the importance of both the technical and social components of a nationwide network testbed. As complex as some of the broadband issues may be, there are equally challenging hurdles in determining how to drive application adoption, find economic models that work, and build a foundation of trust with consumers. These social issues can't be overlooked.

As for what types of applications might originate out of Urbana, Gant says there is a broad range of possibilities. Locally-headquartered manufacturing companies like Caterpillar and John Deere would likely be interested in applying large-scale analytics to optimize equipment design and customer service models. Researchers using the Blue Waters supercomputer will be testing out new computing programs and types of algorithmic analysis. And citizen scientists are already looking into problems like how to use big data to understand why the number of beehives in the region is decreasing, and what can be done about it.

While network deployment in Urbana isn't finished yet, Gant already has the next phases of UC2B's partnership with US Ignite in mind. UC2B will host meetings in the late summer and early fall to start defining its application priorities. At the same time, the organization will start matching up research ideas with potential industry sponsors. Finally, UC2B will open up a proposal submission process and begin reviewing concrete plans to implement projects through US Ignite. Gant believes the first two years with US Ignite will entail a lot of basic research. After that, the program should start producing results that make a difference to the public at large.

How US Ignite will create its distributed testbed

Urbana is only one example of a partner community preparing to get started with US Ignite. But while it has its own unique challenges and opportunities, it's also similar to its fellows in that it will have to find a way to connect local, applied research with broader nationwide efforts. The goal of US Ignite, after all, is to link high-speed communities together, but for now, there's no roadmap to follow.

Kochan of US Ignite describes a two-pronged approach for developing a nationwide broadband testbed. First there is the technical strategy for connecting participating US Ignite communities. And second there is the administrative strategy for establishing research launch plans and common operating procedures.

On the technical front, the first step is getting communities GENI-enabled. That means installing GENI racks locally so that US Ignite communities can take advantage of new software-defined networks for application development efforts. After that, communities have to be connected up to the national GENI network backbone in order to communicate with other regional partners. Some regions have already gone through both phases. Kochan references the city of Cleveland, Ohio, and Merit Network in Michigan as already being hooked up to GENI nationally.

Harder than the technical work for US Ignite is developing a successful administrative strategy. The core team in the organization will start manually working with some of the US Ignite partner communities to find out what areas they're interested in. Then they'll determine where financial resources exist, and help communities create a plan of action. Ultimately US Ignite wants to be a kind of clearinghouse of tools and processes for connecting high-speed communities together and bringing new applications to light. But between now and then, there's a lot of work to do.

Early items on the US Ignite docket include community assessment meetings, coordination with enterprise partners, and various application development competitions including Mozilla Ignite, an open innovation challenge run by the Mozilla Foundation and funded by the NSF. These activities are all getting started now, but just how long they'll take, or how productive they'll be is still a big unknown.

Says Kochan:

This is going to be a little bit manual, until it's not. And we're hoping that that period of time is short, but you know it's also going to be a valuable period of time because that's how we're going to learn what the best way is to get this done.

This is only the beginning

US Ignite aims to have 60 next-generation applications developed within the next five years, but its milestone targets between now and then are fluid. The organization also hasn't codified yet how it will report progress, but Kochan notes that the launch event in June was so popular that US Ignite is thinking about hosting a public event once a year. Maybe next summer the public will get a chance to see some of the early US Ignite applications in action. That could help temper criticism of the program and demonstrate the value of application development as a complement to continued last-mile connectivity efforts.

US Ignite won't solve the broadband problem in America on its own. But if all goes according to plan, it should produce the kinds of life-changing applications that inspire individuals, communities, and businesses to make better broadband a reality in the future. That's a solid step in the right direction.

Images courtesy of US Ignite, the National Science Foundation, UC2B, and Mozilla Ignite

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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