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Following NBA star LeBron James' much-hyped, nationally televised disowning of his hometown in early July, the Cleveland Cavaliers commanded much of the Ohio city's attention. For months prior, local fans and sportswriters speculated on whether local hero James, who grew up in nearby Akron, would remain with the team or search for greener pastures.

Even before James left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, some in Cleveland half-jokingly claimed that James was the only economic driver left in the downtrodden city. Yet less than five miles from the team's home court at Quicken Loans Arena sits Cleveland's premier higher education institution, Case Western Reserve University. Researchers there have begun work on an ambitious project to build out 1 GB per second broadband connectivity to neighborhoods surrounding the university. It's part of an experiment to see whether ultrafast Internet connections can help communities become healthier, better educated and more sustainable.

Circle of Light

Though many prestigious universities feature classical architecture and well groomed campuses, it's not uncommon for nearby neighborhoods to be home to lower-income communities. The resplendent campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, for example, is surrounded by hardscrabble neighborhoods. For Case Western Reserve, the surrounding area is similar. It also proved to be the perfect environment to determine whether or not access to broadband could help families and individuals become upwardly mobile.

Seven years ago, Case Western Reserve and the city of Cleveland undertook a joint effort to build out a fiber-optic network to community institutions, such as schools, hospitals, museums and libraries. The project, called OneCommunity, is bringing 1 GB per second Internet access to more than 1,500 facilities.

In early 2009, university officials decided to take the OneCommunity project a step further and build ultrafast fiber networks for people's homes. That decision stemmed from the fact that federal stimulus funds were beginning to be awarded for broadband projects. Some of that money was being delivered via grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). According to Case Western Reserve CIO Lev Gonick, the thinking was that if the university devised an experiment to test whether access to an ultrafast broadband network could improve families' socioeconomic standing, the expense could be at least partly recouped with NTIA grant money.

So in 2009, the university set to work on the Alpha House, a model for other homes surrounding the campus that would link to the university via optical fiber. At the same time, an application for the NTIA grant was submitted - and subsequently declined. With seven years of OneCommunity behind them and the Alpha House project already under way, school officials opted to continue the initiative without stimulus funds.

"We were well committed to doing this before there was an NTIA, and so we simply decided with our technology partners to build out a beta block," Gonick said. That beta section, consisting of 104 homes, went live on May 22. "We literally have lit up, in the heart of Cleveland, three city blocks - Hessler Street and Hessler Court - which are just regular old neighborhood homes."

With the infrastructure in place, the university is studying whether 1 GB broadband access will have an impact in four areas: neighborhood and community safety; health care and wellness; energy management and sustainability; and improving the competency of high school-age students in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).

The project, dubbed the Case Connection Zone, was made possible with the help of Corning (for fiber optics), Cisco (for routers and switches) and a host of other industry partners.

In November, as the Case Connection Zone infrastructure was being built, Gonick wrote a paper for the Intelligent Community Forum, a New York-based think tank that studies the economic and social impact of broadband Internet access. Citing university data, Gonick noted that 72 percent of the households neighboring Case Western Reserve lacked Internet access; 60 percent of the residents were on food stamps, and 80 percent of young children were enrolled in Medicaid. "Most of these people who live in the homes are not the owners of these homes. They're multidwelling units that are very typical, inner-city America kinds of settings," Gonick said. The setting was perfect to, as Gonick wrote, determine if broadband "is relevant to the needs of neighbors like those around our university."

Case Connection Zone is scheduled to run for a year, during which university researchers will gather data to study the project's results. A formal methodology has been established and researchers hope to answer fundamental questions about the digital divide.

Next Steps

Now that the neighborhood has been lit with fiber, Gonick and other researchers are eager to learn what impact the technology will have on those living in the test area. It's particularly interesting to note that not all the homes in the Case Connection Zone even have computers. Regardless, one area of interest, Gonick said, is the study of chronic disease management. Certain residents will be able to use networked medical devices like scales, glucometers and blood pressure cuffs to see if they improve home health care.

All the homes in the Case Connection Zone have also been made "smart." Outfitted with smart metering technology, researchers hope the test sheds light on the planned smart grids that utilities are developing nationwide.

Though the NTIA rejected Case Connection Zone for grant funding, the FCC is paying close attention. In March the FCC presented to Congress its National Broadband Plan. In the plan, the commission cited Case Connection Zone as a model for how a national broadband network might be constructed.

"We actually had the executive director of the broadband plan come out here, saying this is a microcosm of the grand vision that they have," Gonick said. "And that's why this project is written right into the National Broadband Plan and explicitly called out."

One question that remains unanswered is what happens after Case Connection Zone runs its course. After the year is up, do residents get to keep their high-speed access? Gonick said it all depends on what data is gleaned from what is, at its core, still less an act of altruism and more an academic research project.

If, for example, the Case Connection Zone helps prove smart grids are viable, it's conceivable local utilities will help keep the neighborhoods connected. Or if there's health-care value, perhaps the area's medical community will be interested in continuing support for the project.

"We're not trying to look 14 or 15 months [ahead] right now," Gonick said. "We're just trying to get the research program together and hopefully it will be compelling, it will be transformative. If it is, then answering the question of what happens afterward will be easy."

 

Chad Vander Veen  |  Associate Editor