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  • Ultrahigh-Speed Network Planned in Illinois
Sep 2004
NAPERVILLE, Ill., Sept. 10 -- Northern Illinois University announced plans this week to create an ultrafast, fiber optic communications network that will extend next-generation technology currently available only at elite research facilities in Chicago to the rest of the region.

Dubbed "NIUNet," the roughly 175-mile fiber optic loop is being touted as a huge boon to research and economic development efforts throughout the western suburbs and greater northern Illinois region. Officials say the network can also advance state-of-the art health care technology, benefit area schools and help keep much-sought-after high-tech jobs from leaving the region for more "connected" communities on either coast.

The three-year NIUNet timetable calls for creation of a network stretching from DeKalb to Batavia to Naperville along I-88, connecting into Chicago, the I-WIRE network, Argonne National Laboratory and other national research networks through the connection at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia. NIUNet would then loop back along I-90 to Hoffman Estates and west to Rockford before heading south along I-39 to Rochelle and back to DeKalb. In the end, municipalities, schools, hospitals, research facilities and other potential NIUNet partners could be connected to dozens of other high-speed networks worldwide.

"NIUNet has the potential to transform northern Illinois into one of the most wired regions in the nation, touching millions of lives through improved education, new discoveries and economic development," said NIU President John Peters.

The university expects to invest roughly $1.5 million over the next three years to complete the NIUNet ring. The completed network will consist of both newly constructed segments and long stretches of leased fiber cable currently lying unused underground. NIU hopes to establish agreements with a number of cities along the route to reduce costs through donated right-of-way or easement rights. The university has also applied for state funds and grant money to help pay for some of the project. Development of the first phase is already under way and includes links from NIU’s main campus in DeKalb to its Naperville campus and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia.

The NIUNet plan grew out of university efforts to provide faculty at NIU campuses in DeKalb, Naperville, Hoffman Estates and Rockford with access to a next-generation Internet designed for data-intensive research. The university found a willing collaborator in the Illinois Municipal Broadband Communications Association (IMBCA), a non-profit association of Illinois towns and others interested in sharing information and resources about broadband services. IMBCA members recognized the potential of a university-led project: Through NIU-brokered partnerships, the network could be established affordably by using long-term leases on existing dark (unused) fiber optic cable while installing some new cable to complete the ring. NIU and IMBCA each will reserve a portion of the fiber for their needs.

From a technical point of view, the real advantage of the network is increased bandwidth, according to NIU Communication Professor David Gunkel. "Fiber optics gives us the opportunity to pass vast amounts of information through the system quicker than most of us can imagine," he said.

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