It seems for as long as there has been broadband, there has been the debate about the digital divide. Many believe the divide not only exists, but also that those on the wrong side of it are falling behind their connected countrymen. But gauging the effect of the digital divide traditionally has been difficult — after all, who’s going to give people free broadband in order to study the effects of connectivity? Lev Gonick, that’s who.

Gonick is CIO of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Last summer, Gonick and a team of university researchers launched a project called the Case Connection Zone, which takes advantage of fiber the university laid in neighborhoods surrounding the campus. The neighborhoods happened to be lower income and nearly three-quarters of the households lack Internet access. Gonick and his team wanted to see what happens to people’s lives when, at the flip of a switch, they suddenly have ultra high-speed broadband.

“In May 2010, we were successful in lighting up the very first gigabyte fiber-to-the-home initiative in the country,” Gonick said. “In my view, that is a significant milestone event.”

Others are starting to share Gonick’s enthusiasm. The project was earlier denied a grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, but since going live, Case Connection Zone has ignited interest from potential tenants and homeowners, other government agencies and even the White House.

“We have been hosting communities from around the country to actually visit the 100 homes that are lit up with the fiber-through-the-home initiative,” Gonick said. “We had Erik Garr, who wrote the National Broadband Plan, come in 2010 as well. We have had city visitors from around the world who have come to visit.”

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Chad Vander Veen  |  Associate Editor