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July 29, 2002

UW helping communities to get next-generation Internet to the ‘last mile’

When a next-generation Internet backbone is unveiled at a gala ceremony in Bremerton tomorrow, the University of Washington already will be exploring the next step — how to get that powerful link to individuals’ homes and businesses.

The Kitsap Public Utility District will celebrate its new 33-mile fiber-optic connection with a “lighting ceremony” featuring technical demonstrations to show how Kitsap County can harness the extra gigabits of bandwidth for economic development.

But it will take additional, creative steps by the public and private sectors — not just in Kitsap but across the nation — to bridge the “last mile” between the high-speed network and individual users, said Rex Hughes, co-director of the UW Center for Internet Studies.

“Many lower-density areas feel underserved by existing telecommunications providers,” Hughes said. “Public-private partnerships are making possible a new threshold of broadband services.”

The UW offers guidance to local communities through a new Open Broadband Initiative, under the direction of the Institute for International Policy’s Center for Internet Studies and the School of Law’s Shidler Center for Law, Commerce and Technology.

The initiative plans a national municipal broadband conference in the fall but is already working with Kitsap and other communities grappling with the challenge.

In Kitsap, with the UW acting as a facilitator, governments, tribes, business leaders and the Public Utility District are exploring how to create an open access network that will expand telecommuting and learning opportunities for all.

A publicly owned broadband network, Hughes said, should spur interest from existing and new private service providers that would compete to sell Internet access and services.

That would be an improvement over the present situation, said Sharon Nelson, director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce and Technology.

“With telecom companies, action has been sporadic, while cable companies want to put up proprietary systems in which large vertical conglomerates deliver their own content,” Nelson said. “And investment even in those business models has been undermined by the meltdown in the capital markets.”

Nelson and Hughes will discuss these challenges at Bremerton’s Admiral Theater tomorrow during a daylong symposium that precedes the 5:30 p.m. Lighting Ceremony. Plugged into the new fiber-optic link, the historic theater will be the scene of demonstrations of how it can soup up everything from online employee training to online gaming.

The high-speed line also will “bring” Sen. Patty Murray via live teleconference from the Capitol, while other national perspectives will be delivered in person by Sen. Maria Cantwell and Reps. Norm Dicks and Jay Inslee. Another round of seminars for the public will follow the next day.

Across the nation, say Nelson and Hughes, the financial crisis in the telecommunications industry opens up opportunities for creative local solutions.

One experiment drawing national attention is Zipp Net in Eastern Washington’s Grant County, where the local public utility district is connecting homes, businesses and schools to fiber optics and attracting intense competition among Internet providers to offer services.

As in Grant County, Kitsap’s Public Utility District plans to serve as a wholesaler to local and national Internet providers and is connected to a long-distance fiber system developed by the Bonneville Power Administration. Still to be determined by the KPUD, Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council and Kitsap Regional Economic Development Council is how to structure and finance a last-mile solution to best serve the needs of the community.

But Hughes is optimistic that the telecommunications superhighway will not bypass Kitsap and other areas that are willing to forge partnerships and invest in the infrastructure.

“Something special is happening in Washington state,” he said. “Local communities are powering-up optical broadband networks to both spur competition and to secure their economic future.

Through the Open Broadband Initiative, the university can act as a public forum for discussions and study of where to go next.”

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For more information, contact Hughes at (206) 616-9100 or www.cis.washington.edu. The Shidler Center for Law, Commerce and Technology Web site is www.law.washington.edu/lct. More information on the symposium is available from Mary McClure at the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council (360) 337-4900. Information on the Internet backbone is available from Arlene Buetow at the Kitsap Public Utility District, (360) 779-7656 or arlene@kpud.org.