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White House launches nationwide broadband testbed

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The White House has launched two big initiatives to boost broadband development in the U.S. and pair ultra-fast networks with new applications addressing major economic and societal challenges.

The White House made two big announcements yesterday in an effort to boost broadband development in the United States.

The first was an executive order by President Barak Obama calling on federal agencies to simplify the process for allowing private companies to lay new network infrastructure. With a "dig once" approach, the executive order also aims to help carriers conduct broadband deployments in conjunction with other road construction projects. This strategy will purportedly reduce deployment costs by up to 90 percent.

The second White House announcement was the launch of U.S. Ignite. U.S. Ignite is a new non-profit public/private partnership convened to help bring together network providers, software developers, and Internet users to create next-generation broadband applications. The partnership includes 25 cities around the country, as well as research universities, and major companies such as Verizon, Comcast, Juniper Networks, and Cisco.

While the executive order is fairly simple to parse, the launch of U.S. Ignite is more difficult to conceptualize and assess, and that's because it's got a lot of moving parts. For example, while the goal of the venture is to develop a national testbed of high-speed communities, U.S. Ignite won't be initiating new community-based deployments, but instead plans to link communities with high-speed deployments already underway. Not surprisingly, among the regions hoping to pilot U.S. Ignite efforts are some of our favorite gigabit sites, including Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Sue Spradley, the executive director of U.S. Ignite confirmed in a conference call yesterday that the organization is working closely with the new Gigabit Neighborhood Gateway Program to engage additional high-speed communities.

The U.S. Ignite partnership is also focused heavily on what people can actually do with next-generation broadband, and not just on the networks themselves. Specifically, U.S. Ignite is targeting new applications in education, healthcare, clean energy, public safety, and workforce development, including advanced manufacturing. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is investing a new round of $20 million toward this effort, and is using the money in part to fund grants, and to encourage proposals for demonstrations of advanced, high-bandwidth applications.

With all the resources marshaled behind U.S. Ignite, it's hard not to get excited about the initiative, even if there are still a number of unknowns. However, long-time broadband reporter and analyst Om Malik says he's feeling a "little blase" about the news. He notes out that many of the best inventions (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) come from turning resources over to every-day users, rather than directing them toward big, possibly unwieldy partnerships.

Om has a point, but it's encouraging to hear from the NSF's Dr. Farnam Jahanian about what high-speed communities that will participate in U.S. Ignite are already doing in the way of creating new and valuable applications. In the conference call yesterday, Dr. Janhanian cited the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's work connecting radars to high-speed networks to improve weather prediction, and Case Western Reserve's work applying high-definition multipoint video conferencing to telemedicine. Sue Spradley also pointed out that U.S. Ignite is seeking not only to incubate new applications, but also to replicate ones that are working well. That's something that may require the scope of a broad-based, nationwide coalition, and could be harder to achieve without cross-discipline partnerships like the ones found in U.S. Ignite.

It is, of course, far too early to tell whether the latest broadband efforts from the White House will end in success. However, there is serious political will to make them work – political will, and a lot of smart, dedicated, and even visionary broadband supporters.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Ignite

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure