OPTICAL NETWORKING PRIMED FOR EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES
by Ed Gubbins
Telephony, Apr 5, 2004
The list of regional and national optical networks being built by research and education groups is quickly growing longer, positioning the R&E community to charge ahead in optical network innovation and, more importantly, alter the dynamic between academia and telecom's private sector.
Within the next year or two, R&E groups will have amassed 25,000 to 30,000 route-miles of dark fiber nationwide, predicts Steve Corbató, director of backbone network infrastructure for Internet2, whose FiberCo holding company began aggregating the dark-fiber buying power of R&E groups last year. (By comparison, Level 3's U.S. network is less than 19,000 miles).
Most of the recent projects are regional or state networks hoping to link to larger ones such as Internet2 and the National Lambda Rail, a 10,000-route mile 40-wavelength research network expected to be completed by next year (begun last year, it stretched from Chicago to Atlanta as of last week).
The low price of distressed assets, combined with new federal funds from the National Science Foundation, has tempted a number of states and universities to build their own fiber networks, involving carriers in a variety of ways.
Level 3 and Qwest Communications have sold large amounts of dark fiber to R&E groups. In New Jersey, Verizon Communications won a $13 million contract to design, install and manage an OC-192 MPLS network connecting 45 colleges and universities in the state.
But in Ohio, where the Third Frontier Network will link 100 higher education institutions and thousands of other schools with two OC-48s (scheduled to be lit this summer) and set aside an OC-192 for next-generation optical network research, SBC Communications is only handling the installation.
“This does lead to a new relationship with carriers,” Corbato said. “It's moving to a supporting services model rather than a finished-product model.”
AT&T was so eager to fuel R&E innovation (and get in on the ground floor of it) that in December it donated 6000 miles of fiber plus associated optical equipment to the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA), which will make the assets available to states, such as Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina, that are building their own fiber networks for government and academic use.
“Higher education is becoming the market-maker for grid networking,” said Gary Crane, SURA's director of IT initiatives. “AT&T sees it to their advantage to get close to that developing market, and they have a lot of surplus fiber, which can either sit unused or they can do something creative with it.”
And because the donated fiber passes through AT&T's facilities, the carrier has a physical link to that market if and when the applications it develops become mature.
“[R&E groups] get [a new application] to work, and when it's ready for prime time, we provide commercial access to it over our network,” said Bob Collet, vice president of engineering for AT&T's government solutions group. “It's a way of rapidly prototyping new technology and getting early adopters, at least physically, on net to AT&T.”
In that sense, R&E could represent a sort of vicarious R&D for carriers eager to usher in a next wave of high-speed applications.
“Higher education is willing to take on, or at least participate in, an upfront investment in fiber and optronics,” Corbato said. “To a telecom [firm] that Wall Street doesn't think should be making capital investments, that's a rather interesting business proposition.”