Telecommunications companies push bill to defend turf from state network

February 11, 2012

To hear the telecommunications lobby put it, a state-subsidized data network connecting universities across Indiana could become a threat not unlike the 1950s cinematic terror “The Blob.”

Only the I-Light network is a big blob of bandwidth—its mass of fiber-optic lines consuming alive the business prospects of privately owned broadband providers.

So spooked is the telecommunications industry that two bills are coursing through the Indiana General Assembly that would effectively freeze I-Light in its tracks.

Senate Bill 361 and a companion House bill would prevent I-Light from diversifying beyond its stated mission of serving the state’s colleges and universities and private postsecondary institutions.

There’s been talk of taking I-Light into hospitals and K-12 schools, said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, sponsor of SB 361. “We’re just drawing a line”

But some officials at Indiana University, which co-manages I-Light, are puzzled. They say I-Light has no plans for world domination.

“There really never were any expansion plans,” said David Jent, associate vice president of networks for IU.

“Now we’re getting dragged around the Statehouse. They’re saying we’re going to expand and expand.”

Nobody’s accusing I-Light of crossing the line yet, said John Koppin, president of the Indiana Telecommunications Association. Its members range from small phone companies to giants the likes of AT&T and Verizon.

But Koppin noted that the I-Light fiber-optic network has grown extensively since it was launched a decade ago with an initial appropriation of $6 million.

It was touted as the first university-owned optical fiber network if its kind, connecting super computers at IU, IUPUI and Purdue University.

In the years since, it has expanded to numerous public and private postsecondary schools. Most recently, I-Light was connected to Ivy Tech Community College campuses across the state.

It doesn’t take much imagination for private telecommunications firms to envision I-Light being introduced to serve IU Health, the statewide health care system.

“We’ve seen mission-creep over the years,” Koppin said.

IU’s Jent counters that I-Light’s mission is limited to supporting higher education, under a memorandum of understanding signed by Gov. Mitch Daniels several years ago.

I-Light “will be preserved for the exclusive use of higher education. State government will not become a competitor to private-sector companies which provide broadband Internet connections to Hoosiers,” Daniels said in 2005.

“I have the governor’s MOU on my wall—and framed,” Jent said.

That’s well enough for now, Koppin said, but he added: “Our concern is, with the governor leaving, it leaves that agreement in limbo. We would like to get it codified” in state law.

Health care turf

Perhaps causing the most concern among telecom companies is the health care market—a lucrative customer base. There have been sightings of I-Light near some of IU Health’s facilities. Second- and third-year medical students at some have access to the network. Jent said the use is purely for research and teaching purposes. I-Light is not nor does it seek to serve hospital corporate functions, he said.

“It got turned into, ‘You’re going to support health care.’ Well, no, we’re not,” Jent said.

The network also has at times made connections at private laboratories to support joint research efforts with state universities. Those links are discontinued after a project is completed. The connections are not serving the corporate functions of a private entity, Jent said.

“This is the research and teaching mission that I-Light is geared up to support.”

Koppin said the legislation mirrors the agreement between the governor and I-Light to keep the focus on higher education.

SB 361 would prohibit I-Light from providing services to individuals, corporations, or public or private agencies.

Subsequent amendments of the bill have IU officials concerned that it could be interpreted as restricting the state from providing certain data to the public, such as through public libraries, for example

The bill provides exemptions that allow the network to be used to provide 911 service communications or for emergency or law enforcement purpose.

I-Light also could be used to provide communications services to member licensees of Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations Inc.

I-Light’s fiber-optic network includes lines leased from private companies. The Indiana General Assembly appropriated $2.94 million for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 for I-Light network operations, according to the Legislative Services Agency.

Koppin credits I-Light as one of the reasons Indiana has a “world class” university system.

I-Light generally pumps data at speeds of 1 gigabit to 10 gigabits. It can be ramped up to provide even bigger flow rates to accommodate projects involving supercomputers.

Last month, IU announced Indiana was the first state to launch a 100-gigabits-per-second network known as Monon100, which runs between Indianapolis and Chicago. It links the universities with the so-called Internet2, a national research and education network.•

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