President McRobbie

Fast broadband gives state its edge

Note: The following op-ed appeared in the Indianapolis Star on March 27, 2010.

Recently the Federal Communications Commission released its long-anticipated National Broadband Plan which stated that “broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century.”

The cultural and economic consequences of high-speed, broadband connectivity can hardly be overstated. In the 19th century, the development of basic transportation systems such as roads, railways, and canals proved to be wise investments that drove economic development in this country and around the world. In the last century the interstate highway system further integrated the U.S. economy, fueling economic growth and prosperity.

But if we are to maintain our edge in an economy that is increasingly global and interconnected, we must be prepared to develop and use the infrastructure upon which the modern, emerging economy relies.

Fortunately, the state of Indiana is already well ahead in developing fast broadband networks for education and research. Ten years ago the Indiana General Assembly invested $5.3 million to start construction of the state’s I-Light network. The vision for this network was to connect all of our state’s colleges and universities to enhance teaching and research.

Today, I-Light connects 42 Indiana colleges and universities with more than 1,200 miles of “digital pipeline,” and a recent $25 million federal stimulus grant to Zayo Bandwidth will connect 21 additional Ivy Tech Community College campuses. Through I-Light’s exemplary public-private partnership, that vision for higher education has been largely realized. 

And the payoff for Indiana is just beginning. In 2009 the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $105 million to Purdue to lead a center to study earthquakes and tsunamis. At about the same time Indiana University was also selected to lead a $15 million NSF project to develop the next generation of supercomputing grids for scientific research. Without the I-Light network, those federal dollars and that important research activity would not have come to Indiana.

The state’s visionary investment in broadband for higher education has also created high-tech jobs in Indiana. Ten years ago, no institution in the nation knew how to operate the emerging high-speed digital networks that would link the researchers of the world. Today, IU’s Global Research Network Operations Center (GRNOC) is in Indiana and has grown from three initial staff to 70. It has managed over $20 million in contracts for the nation’s leading research networks, such as Internet2, National Lambda Rail, and connections to Asia and Europe. Because of I-Light, those jobs and contracts are in Indiana, and this summer, the GRNOC will provide work experiences for seven college interns from across the state.

As we look to the jobs of the future, we cannot forget that digital “roads and bridges” like I-Light are critical to the state’s success in developing information technology and life sciences jobs. The foresight that began I-Light in 1999—a tribute to the vision of Indiana’s government leaders of both parties, as well as the Lilly Endowment and the leadership of the late Myles Brand of Indiana University and Purdue’s Martin Jischke—is now paying off. There can be no question that I-Light makes Indiana more competitive for national grants, reduces the cost of networking, and creates jobs in Indiana. 

As broadband plans evolve at the federal level and in other states, Hoosiers can be proud of our pioneering broadband achievements. I-Light represents an invaluable strategic investment in economic development and research in our state. It is a part of the new infrastructure that will allow Indiana to compete on the national and international stage to attract the emerging growth industries of this century.