Digitally connecting one person with another is powerful in itself, but connecting entire communities in the United States and around the world is truly transformative. Broadband, specifically, has the potential to give Internet users access to information that can inspire action, changing the way people learn, do business and help each other.
At the 2012 Social Good Summit in September, Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg spoke about the rapidly growing enterprise of broadband. “Today, [there are] 6.3 million mobile subscriptions in the world, 1 million broadband subscriptions in the world. That’s just going to blow the next five years. [By] 2017? 5 billion mobile broadband subscriptions,” he said.
With this kind of growth, organizations have been working with broadband to bring people together and spur progress. Here are three examples of the power and future of high-speed Internet.
1. Pushing Limits
Gigabit Squared (GB2) is a digital economic development corporation founded in 2010 to create community broadband networks through public and private partnerships in the United States. GB2 is determined to develop networks that serve as innovative platforms for economic growth and social advantages.
“We champion both what’s now and what’s possible,” says Mark Ansboury, president and founder of GB2. “Fully competitive broadband speeds should be in the gigabit per second range in both directions, hence the ‘squared’ in our name.”
A gigabit squared is equal to 1.80143985 × 1016 bytes2 — more data than any network can currently deliver. The team chose this name to reflect how it constantly pushes its members’ ideas. The website reads, “There shouldn’t be a limit to the imagination — because that’s where innovation stops.”
GB2’s principals and partners engage with universities and communities to develop broadband initiatives, including efforts in the cities of Miami, Cleveland, Chattanooga, Lafayette and Detroit.
One of GB2’s notable partnerships is with the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, also known as Gig.U, which comprises over 30 leading U.S. research universities. The two organizations created the Gigabit Neighborhood Gateway Program, through which necessary funds will be made available to support approximately six select Gig.U member-sponsored projects. Gig.U universities and their communities can apply, and depending on the strength of applications, there may be more than six involved.
Gigabit Squared created the Gigabit Neighborhood Gateway Program to help these communities build and test gigabit speed broadband networks with speeds from 100 to 1000 times faster than what we currently have in the United States. The chosen communities will be announced between November 2012 and March 2013.
“Communities are selected based on a variety of criteria, but key among those is the ability to bring the community together and create a community partnership that will help ensure the success of these projects,” Ansboury says.
The hope for this program is that the communities and their local stakeholders will drive economic opportunities through the use of gigabit broadband networks.
Ansboury explains that there are many companies deploying fiber optic cable, but it’s necessary to use that fiber meaningfully.
“The optimal approach is to both upgrade the infrastructure with fiber and further enable the community through social connections, new and better services, more creativity and higher levels of global competitiveness,” he says.
GB2’s approach is to extend broadband to the underlying “social infrastructure” — health, education and public safety — in order to empower new services, systems and engaged members of the Gig.U communities.
2. Public Benefit
One use of broadband is to support areas of national priority: healthcare, energy, transportation, education, advanced manufacturing, and public safety and emergency preparedness. US Ignite, a non-profit that launched in June 2012, aims to benefit these areas in order to improve the way Americans are able to work and live using the Internet.
“This requires two things: dramatically faster and more advanced broadband networks, and applications that are truly a generation beyond where we are today,” Jake Brewer, communications director at US Ignite, tells Mashable.
According to Brewer, the White House and the National Science Foundation challenged the tech community to focus on applications that would engage Americans. In response, a coalition of industry, university and community partners started US Ignite in order to foster next-generation applications that support six previously mentioned priority areas.
“Our partners include everything from today’s most influential telecoms companies to hardware manufacturers to universities, municipalities and networks of startups and developers,” Brewer says. “One of the exciting parts of our job thus far has been seeing partners come together and align around the vision of US Ignite — even those who would otherwise be competitors in other spaces.”
It’s important to note that US Ignite isn’t building a broadband network or creating a new infrastructure — it’s utilizing existing gigabit networks and building on their capabilities. As a result, Brewer says the non-profit hopes to achieve the following goals over the next five years:
Identify, develop and deploy 60 next-generation applications that are not currently possible with today’s Internet
Support the creation of 200 community test beds where those applications can be researched, developed, tested, refined and deployed for years
Provide a new forum for collaboration between an array of partners and individuals.
“There are places in the country, such as Chattanooga, Tenn., or Kansas City, Mo., where it is possible to deliver a completely natural, interactive video consultation between a patient and a doctor as though they were in the same room, or where a specially-trained teacher could give lessons to students all over a state,” Brewer says. “But, while the advanced networks necessary for those applications exist in those cities, the applications themselves do not yet. Our job is to foster the creation of these kinds of applications.”
Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe is an adviser and supporter of US Ignite, and he believes that investing in broadband is the next step for technological progress.
“In the 1970s, many doubted there were uses for even 50-kilobit-per-second Internet,” Metcalfe says. “But soon application explorers came up with remote login, file transfer and email. Pioneers have since found new worlds in telephony, television, publishing, commerce and social interactivity. Today, while investing in gigabit generations of Internet, we are again sending out our application explorers.”
Since June, US Ignite has started initiatives with 10 of its partner communities around the United States. There’s “Hackanooga” in Chattanooga, where one team has combined the power of high-speed networks with new web standards, such as HTML5 and WebRTC, for a better remote classroom experience. Also noteworthy is that the Ammon, Idaho, community will develop an application that allows emergency operators to reach every resident through email, text or video, regardless of their access to a landline connection.
As for the immediate future, US Ignite plans on working closely with the Mozilla Ignite Challenge to pinpoint further innovation.
3. Catalyst for Development
Broadband is also seen as a powerful tool in developing nations. In May 2010, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established the global Broadband Commission for Digital Development. The Broadband Commission was launched to accelerate the rollout of broadband around the world, and to examine how it can be applied for social services.
The Broadband Commission believes that high-speed Internet connections are essential in modern society, especially since it can have economic and social benefits.
“In the 21st century, broadband networks are [part of the] basic national infrastructure — just like transport, energy and water networks,” said Dr. Hamadoun Touré, ITU’s secretary-general, in a Q&A for the Broadband Commission website. “With increasing machine-to-machine communications — ‘The Internet of Things’ — these networks will underpin a vast array of services in areas like healthcare, education, energy management, transport systems, emergency services and much more. Broadband infrastructure cannot therefore only be for rich countries — or we will quickly create a new ‘broadband divide.’ Everyone — wherever they live and whatever their means — needs equitable and affordable access to this infrastructure.”
The Broadband Commission differs from organizations like Gigabit Squared and US Ignite in that it is more of a guiding force, rather than actively working on specific projects in various countries.
“The Commission is really an advocacy group, so it is not involved in projects per se,” a Broadband Commission spokesperson tells Mashable. “That said, there are a lot of research, grassroots and promotional activities led by ITU’s own Telecommunication Development Bureau, our WSIS team, other parts of ITU and our members — 193 countries and around 700 private sector entities.”
In October 2011, the Broadband Commission set policy, affordability and uptake goals, or “targets,” to achieve by 2015. These targets include having all countries adopt a broadband policy, making broadband affordable in developing nations and setting up broadband connections in 40% of homes in developing nations.
“As Dr. Touré says, broadband is a transformative technology that will act as a catalyst for development across all other sectors — healthcare, education, government services, commerce, industrial development, environmental monitoring and management, and more,” the Broadband Commission’s spokesperson says.
The Commission has also just set up a brand new Working Group on Gender, exploring the impact of broadband in the area of gender empowerment, which is also one of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals. This group will be headed by Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and it will deliver its first report to the next Broadband Commission meeting in Mexico next March.
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