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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ultra-high-speed Internet coming to town

The towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro recently took one step closer to ultra high-speed Internet, giving their town managers the authority to negotiate with potential provider AT&T. The goal is to give more residents access to the Internet and to offer one gigabit per second speed to those homes and businesses at a reasonable cost.

At UNC, the minimum Internet connection speed on campus is already a gigabit, with multiple 10G and 20G connections. But if students, faculty and staff and UNC Health Care patients had access to a one-gigabit connection from their homes, that could make a huge difference to UNC.

How much difference does one gigabit make? With a typical 10MB home service, it takes more than an hour to download a full movie. With a gigabit connection, it takes less than a minute. More important, though, the faster speed would make activities like telecommuting, HD-quality video conferencing and remote health services more easily achievable.

“The opportunity for telemedicine and health care being extended to a residential setting is just one notable example of ways high-speed broadband will deliver new capabilities to our region,” said Chris Kielt, Carolina’s vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer.

A community with gigabit speed would attract entrepreneurs and startups who want the service in their offices and at home. Gigabit speed also would make working from home a more viable option.

The difference in quality compares to the earlier difference between dial-up and Ethernet connections, said Elise Kohn of Duke University, program director for the North Carolina Next Generation Network, known as NCNGN (pronounced NC-Engine). Gigabit speed “allows real-time communication, and high-quality virtual training or simulation activity is more realistic,” she said.

For example, surgeons could practice procedures on a realistic 3-D model of the human body instead of on animals. Health-care providers could also monitor homebound patients by using devices to remotely collect and send data – blood glucose levels, heart electrocardiograms – to a diagnostic testing facility for interpretation.

Nationally, the effort to bring ultra-high-speed Internet to college communities is led by the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, or Gig.U, a broad-based group of more than 30 leading research universities, including Carolina. NCNGN spearheads the effort locally, bringing together Carolina and N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest universities as well as the municipalities of Cary, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh and Winston-Salem.

Positioning the Research Triangle as a regional market, NCNGN requested proposals from vendors in February 2013. Of the eight vendors who responded, AT&T was the first to get NCNGN’s recommendation. The company agreed to provide free gigabit service to up to 100 public community sites and free low-speed Internet service to residents in up to 10 affordable housing complexes and to prewire up to 100 multi-tenant business buildings.

AT&T expects to begin service in five of the communities by the end of 2014 and in Durham by mid-2015.

But proposed agreements with AT&T are not exclusive and any of the individual communities can negotiate with other vendors, including Google, which earlier this year announced that the Triangle was on its short list for installing Google Fiber.