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Case Western Reserve University is providing University Circle’s Hessler Road and Hessler Court a better Internet connection than money can buy — for free. The research program Case Connection Zone is wiring homes with fiber-optic cables that deliver a one-gigabyte-per-second connection for downloading and uploading. In layman’s terms, that’s light years beyond what is generally considered state of the art. And in a world of rapidly evolving technology and bandwidth consumption, it should stay competitive for some time.

lev gonick case western
“It’s an infrastructure that will last for 30 years,” says Lev Gonick, CWRU’s vice president for information technology services and chief information officer. “The capacity is a thousand times what we can imagine now.”

The university provides a wireless connection to five square miles around the school. But the Internet services this program is testing, says Gonick, “could never be supported in a wireless environment.”

The pilot program launched last year, and the university is still wiring residences. It could reach up to 104 homes in the area, some with multiple connections. Even though some neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the school have broadband access in around 30 percent of homes, the program targets an area where computers are more common. But computers aren’t a primary concern in the study.

“Our research program is not about teaching people how to send faster e-mail or surf the web more quickly,” says Gonick. In many of the applications, he says, “The house itself becomes the portal to the Internet.”

The experiment focuses on next-generation Internet applications, including education opportunities, household climate control, neighborhood and public-safety video surveillance, and interactive health care and wellness programs. Early demonstrations used no computers. Some of the houses have been equipped with big video screens and health-monitoring devices.

The experiment is ahead of its time. The downside is that it may be “promising way more benefits than it will be able to deliver — at least through the end of the timeline of the experiment,” says James G. Lakely, co-director of the Center on the Digital Economy at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank.

The plan does sound idealistic, but it is being touted as an ideal. Google has plans for a similar initiative, and the Federal Communications Commission has announced the National Broadband Plan, which would make similar connections part of the national infrastructure. The national program’s outline references the Case program twice.

Wiring the houses is an expensive and time-consuming process. Gonick says the university does not know how much installation and maintenance will ultimately cost. In fact, arriving at an average cost is one piece of data the program will yield. Recovery Act funds pay for some of the study.

Gonick says Case didn’t meet any resistance from the private sector. After the year-long test, another party — or parties — will likely take over the expensive infrastructure. “We will turn it over to another operator, or possibly several companies can compete to provide services,” says Gonick. “We’d like to see it operate like a public road.” — D.X. Ferris

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