The University of Montana has joined a coalition of research universities across the country to advocate for faster Internet services off college campuses.
The goal is to encourage the private telecommunications industry to offer high-speed Internet to more customers. Campuses offer Internet networks that operate sometimes a hundred times faster than home networks, said Ray Ford, UM chief technology officer. And while Gig.U: The University Community Next Generation Project - consisting of 29 universities nationwide- has no interest in competing with the private telecommunication industry, they have an interest in making sure that faculty, staff and students have access to high-speed Internet whether at home or on campus.
"We're being a self-proclaimed spokesman for the consumer," Ford said. "We'd like to get together and talk about upgrading consumer services in Missoula."
OK, you're probably thinking, that's good, but what's in it for the universities?
There are several reasons for wanting to accelerate the development of high-speed Internet in surrounding communities, Ford said.
Distance learning is not only a statewide initiative to provide better and more affordable access to college, but even students taking classes on campus rely more heavily on online learning and resources.
Few professors photocopy reading assignments anymore and leave them at the library for check out. They post articles online and UM students - including many who reside off campus - need to have high-speed Internet to upload the material. In some cases, a professor might even decide to hold a class online rather than in the classroom.
The university builds online tools for students and wants them to use them wherever they might be.
"Students don't want to drive to campus and go to the library or lab (to use the Internet)," he said. "We spend our time building these tools and they work great on campus and then people go home and they don't work so well. If we can convince vendors to build networks that are almost as fast, then our student won't complain."
UM also looks at the situation from a consumer perspective. The university has satellite sites around town. Either it leases fiber-optic cables or the school contracts for Internet services. Either way, UM is interested in having faster-working networks at places like the UM College of Technology campuses.
It's no coincidence that the coalition is launching the initiative prior to the start of the academic year. UM has access to consumers - primarily students. If a provider company is willing to improve its services at an affordable price, then UM can make consumers available to them.
"We can help assess your market and explain to students that you should buy this service," Ford said.
It's not just for local companies, though. UM is happy to listen to any company that wants to work to provide faster Internet to more people.
"If someone who doesn't serve here, well, the local providers may not like that but that's not our concern ... if I can get more competing against each other, that's OK. That's good for the consumer," Ford said.
UM hopes to get the county and city on board because the university sees the project as boosting economic development in the area. High-speed networks help recruit businesses, Ford said.
UM paid $10,000 to join the coalition, which pays for a staff to execute the group's strategy. The coalition is led by Blair Levin, the former broadband adviser for the Federal Communication Commission.
Through an open "request for information" process, Gig.U will gather data on market segments ranging from health care to technology and energy with the intent to inform high-speed service providers of new implementation approaches and to enable competition to bring high-speed networks to research communities.
This move comes in addition to UM's previous efforts to bring faster computer networks to Montana. In 2010, UM held a Northern Tier Network Consortium "Golden Spike Event" to celebrate the completion of a new 10-gigabit-per-second computer pathway across campus and the northern states between Chicago and Seattle.
Besides UM, the partners in Gig.U include Penn State, Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Colorado State University, Duke University, George Mason University, Howard University, Indiana University, Michigan State University, North Carolina State University and the University of Michigan.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.