There is no rubric for measuring the short-term progress of US Ignite, the public/private partnership launched last June by the White House to encourage development of advanced Internet applications. The organization is working hard not only to get its administrative foundation in place but to reframe the entire national conversation on broadband.
By any assessment, however, US Ignite still has its work cut out for it.
While many interested parties in both government and private industry are wrangling over how to fund infrastructure upgrades and improve access to Internet service, US Ignite is taking a different tack. The non-profit is trying to shift the discussion toward innovative applications and how they can catalyze the development and spread of next-generation networks.
US Ignite executive spokesperson Joseph Kochan says:
"US Ignite has chosen, and we're pretty proud of this, we've chosen to bring together a very diverse set of partners... We understand, appreciate and acknowledge that the construction, operation, funding and maintenance of the various networks ... is a complex problem. We understand that there is controversy there. We understand that there is, there are, business model questions, and financial questions, and public policy and legal questions... In fact many of us, myself included, have been on the various different sides of that discussion for years."
Despite the controversy over how to improve Internet access in America -- and specifically how to pay for it -- everyone agrees that the potential for advanced broadband applications across every industry from healthcare to clean energy is invaluable.
Kochan, who previously founded DigitalBridge Communications, a broadband startup bent on reaching underserved markets, notes:
"We were able to bring together this diverse group of folks because no matter where you stand on that discussion, more applications that showcase the need for smarter, more advanced, higher-bandwidth networks to more people is something that everybody understands is necessary, and everybody understands is important."
The story so far
In part by reframing the broadband debate to focus on applications, US Ignite has put together a long list of impressive partners. They include the National Science Foundation, several premier research institutions, network operators, entrepreneurs, large enterprises, and numerous cities across the country. With those partners, US Ignite has launched and begun to foster between 20 and 25 applications projects around the country. They cover a range of endeavors from work on advanced manufacturing applications to new approaches for weather warning and response systems.
One team is working on remote control of production processes like 3D printing. Another is exploring how to analyze data from ubiquitous sensors to detect and prevent potential healthcare crises. Still another is correlating multiple radars to improve tracking of hazardous weather.
US Ignite personnel are partnering closely with each project team and also collaborating on how to share information and lessons learned across the various participant groups. The organization is looking to build an online platform that will act as a repository of knowledge and a clearinghouse of tools on everything from how to get a gigabit network funded to what developers need to know to build new types of applications.
There are also early indications of how different project teams and groups around the country could collaborate on research and development. Operators of the gigabit network in Chattanooga Tennessee are talking to researchers at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California about smart grid technologies. Researchers at Kettering University in Michigan, Purdue University, and in the city of San Leandro, Calif., are discussing advanced manufacturing efforts and considering how to link their local infrastructures to create a cross-region network testbed for joint experiments.
Any collaborative efforts are still early-stage, but one strength of US Ignite, argues Kochan, is the ability to bring together brilliant people capable of solving difficult problems.
"We are literally bringing people together to have this conversation, and watching, sort of almost like watching the hive mind... You're watching a room full of brains, and you're watching these connections get made, and somebody say, 'Oh my goodness, I never thought about that.' You know, and many of our corporate partners, for instance, nobody, nobody really pays that much for people to sit around and think about what they could do five years from now ... or three years from now, of whatever else. What we're actually talking about is things you could actually do now today in some certain places, but perhaps there's not an immediate market for. But tell you what, if some of these projects get going ... you will see markets emerge overnight."
Those tangible results for US Ignite are still in the future, but the organization is putting the pieces in place today to make the future possible.
The public will get a glimpse of US Ignite's efforts in June when it hosts a one-year summit to showcase some of the new applications under development. Until then, US Ignite will keep plugging away.
"Without sounding grandiose," says Kochan, "you could transform the way people live and work. And we all understand it's not going to happen overnight or immediately, but if we make the right connections, it's going to happen faster than you think."
Image credit: US Ignite