I-Light network delayed by state: Daniels administration calls for further study of high-speed system

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The completion of a state effort to expand Indiana’s digital infrastructure by connecting 15 cities via a fiber-optic network has been delayed as the new administration further studies the project.

The initiative, known as I-Light, began in 1999 and connected supercomputers at Indiana University, Purdue University and IUPUI.

By harnessing the technological power of the institutions into a grid, the universities surpassed the two-teraflop (trillions of operations per second) mark and increased their computation, storage and visualization ability.

The $5.9 million initiative funded by the state was completed in December 2001 and was the first university-owned network of its kind in the country. Now, the second phase of I-Light, or I-Light 2 as it’s called, is nearly finished. A March completion date had been expected.

The $10 million I-Light 2 would extend the network’s reach to 12 additional communities throughout the state, providing them high-speed Internet access.

The locations are Columbus; the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville; Fort Wayne; Gary; Jeffersonville; IU at Kokomo; Marion; Ball State University in Muncie; Richmond; IU at South Bend; Indiana State University in Terre Haute; and Vincennes University.

But the administration of Gov. Mitch Daniels is exploring the network’s capabilities before approving its completion,” said Chris Cotterill, general counsel for the Indiana Office of Technology.

“We want to ask some new questions and make recommendations to the governor,” he said. “This fiber could be used a number of different ways, and all options are on the table.”

State Sen. David Ford, R-Hartford City, who spearheaded the effort to fund I- Light, voiced his concern about the decision. He wants the network’s implementation to remain close to schedule.

“That’s fine to want to keep all options open, but sooner or later, we need to exercise an option,” he countered. “I would hope we could get this back on track fairly soon.”

State lawmakers approved the $10 million appropriation last session to fund ILight 2 in three stages. The first, connecting the network’s node on the campus of IUPUI downtown to the National LamdaRail infrastructure that runs through Chicago, is done.

The state received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to connect to the national network. National LambdaRail is an initiative of universities and technology companies to provide a large-scale infrastructure for research and experimentation.

The track runs from Seattle to New York City down to Jacksonville, Fla., and back across the country to San Diego and reconnecting at Seattle.

The second phase entails securing the fiber to connect the 12 cities to the state’s network. Rather than lay the fiber, which was done under the original I-Light program that linked the three campuses, the state purchased dormant fiber-optic cables. Known as “dark” fiber, the unused cables were laid by companies looking to capitalize on the technology boom.

Much of the fiber has been secured through a long-term lease with Indiana Fiberworks, a subsidiary of Connecticutbased GE Capital Corp. Negotiations for the remaining fiber continue with Level 3 Communications Inc. in Colorado.

The ongoing discussions, coupled with the cost to “light” the network, also have contributed to the delay, said Dave King, executive director of the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunications System on Senate Avenue. IHETS-which was formed in 1967 and oversees the Indiana Telecommunications Network that reaches schools, libraries and state agencies-is developing the I-Light network.

Another request for proposals has been distributed in an attempt to get the cost to “light” the network and complete I-Light 2 under the $10 million appropriation. Once the project is finished, which King hopes now will be midyear, the older ITN system will begin to be replaced by the newer and more powerful I-Light network.

King said he’s aware of the administration’s position to want to further study the project before it’s completed.

“That’s certainly the message we’re getting [from state officials],” he said. “That’s the safest thing for them to say at this point. They’re just getting their feet on the ground.”

ITN users generate $21 million in annual revenue to the state, $10 million of which is spent on contracts with telephone companies to gain access to their infrastructure. I-Light users will pay an annual membership fee, yet to be determined, and a cost to hook up to the system, depending upon how much bandwidth they use, King said.

Brian Voss, IU’s associate vice president of information technologies for telecommunications, is confident the project will come to fruition. The system has produced “great results” for IU and the other two campuses, and should extend the benefits across the state, he said.

“We feel the development of the regional optical networks is critical for the state to remain competitive among a broad variety of areas,” Voss said. “What we have now is a slight hitch in processes.”

Supporters say the improved connectivity could attract companies looking to tap into a system capable of high-speed data transfers and real-time videoconferencing.

With access to the National LambdaRail infrastructure, King already has participated in videoconferences originating in Honduras and Mexico.

“This blue line gets me to Chicago,” said King, pointing to a map of the state’s network, “and the second stage gets me to the world.”

Cotterill, the administration’s lawyer, said the network must make business sense before it can move forward and needs to be more than just a “cool idea.”

Ford, meanwhile, has introduced legislation this session, Senate Bill 381, that could use $5 million in the current budget request to broaden I-Light’s scope even more. The bill would allow network developers to build wireless transmitters at each of the 15 I-Light node sites to expand the reach 30 miles in every direction. The state would almost be blanketed with broadband access, giving residents in rural areas the opportunity they might otherwise not have to receive high-speed Internet service, Ford said.

The major telephone companies, such as SBC Indiana, oppose the legislation, Ford said, because they think the expanded network would tread on their turf. SBC Indiana already has introduced its digital-subscriber line service to several cities throughout the state. SBC and its competitors are profiting from the arrangement, though, because the state is leasing their equipment to make the hookups, Ford said.

John Koppin, president of the industry’s trade group, the Indiana Telecommunications Association, said he has voiced his concerns about I-Light to the administration and is troubled by some of the language in Ford’s bill.

“While I-Light 2 was sold as a network for high-level research for academic activity, which we still weren’t keen on, because we felt the private sector should be the provider of that service, we sort of bit our tongue and went along with it,” Koppin said. “Now, an effort to expand that into other valuable markets for the industry has us very concerned.”

Ford summed up the importance of ILight’s completion this way: “The reputation of Indiana, especially for economic development, depends on it.”

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