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National LambdaRail Pioneering America's Broadband Future

After initial challenges, one-of-a-kind network emerging as dramatic catalyst for development of the country's high-speed communications infrastructure

May 3, 2010

By Charles Waltner

One of the hottest topics in the networking industry these days is how the United State's should develop its broadband infrastructure, highlighted most recently by the Federal Communications Commission's comprehensive, multi-billion dollar plan to keep the country competitive in the age of the Internet.

But since 2003, one organization has been quietly building a big part of the country's digital future on its own.

Over the past seven years a consortium of research and educational institutions, regional networks and Cisco Systems has created National LambdaRail (NLR), an ultra-fast, coast-to-coast broadband network that now stands as a uniquely unfettered resource for advanced research and economic development, providing a ready-made means to speed along America's grand broadband plans.

Unlike any organization of its kind, NLR owns the fiber and hardware for its 12,000-mile network and has complete control of how it is used, creating a national test bed for cutting-edge advances in digital communications, as well as providing the mega-size pipes necessary for carrying massive data and media streams for running tomorrow's Internet.

NLR is also the only national fiber optic network in the world that hosts research traffic from universities and government agencies alongside data from corporations, easily mingling the communications demands of both the public and private sectors. Bleeding-edge engineers, medical centers, community colleges, grade schools, cities, counties, businesses, and individuals can all take part in this one-of-a-kind resource.

Perhaps just as importantly, the Cypress, Calif.-based organization has helped spawn several high-speed regional networks in states from Florida to Washington – bringing the same sophisticated broadband connections to many areas for the first time and creating an expansive high-speed "network of networks" reaching virtually every part of the country.

And most remarkably of all, NLR has built this peerless digital infrastructure with no government aid or direct tax payer funding.

An Idea Comes of Age

Getting NLR to this point, however, has not been easy. Like a start-up business, NLR has gone through its share of birthing pains since the project first began in 2003. Most significantly, the network has suffered reliability issues that have tarnished its image.

Now, however, NLR is moving into a new era. Last year the organization completed a major equipment upgrade, giving the cutting-edge network as much speed and capacity as any in the world. Most importantly, NLR's reliability is now as good as or better than virtually any other network, say Grover Browning, NLR's director of engineering and operations.

In November, for example, NLR had not even a second's worth of downtime. "It's trending in a very positive manner," Browning says. "We try to be conservative in our reliability estimates, but in most all cases we are now hitting at 99.999 percent reliability or better."

In October NLR also appointed a new chief executive, Glenn Ricart, whose experience and knowledge seem ideally suited for guiding the use of this formidable national asset.

Ricart's resume reads like the history of networking. He set up the first Internet connection point for the United States federal government, led the development of the first Internet protocols for IBM's personal computers, managed NSFNet – the first backbone network for the Internet, and co-founded SURANet, which was arguably the world's first commercial Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Ricart also served in the federal government as a program manager at DARPA and as the military's technology liaison to the Clinton White House. And he has logged extensive business experience, including a long tenure as Novell's chief technology officer, and most recently as a managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Calling All Networkers

Though NLR's network has vast potential to advance economic and technology initiatives in the United States, Ricart has plenty of work ahead of him.

Ironically, one of NLR's biggest challenges has been communications. Joe Mambretti, director of the International Center for Internet Research at Northwestern University, says NLR's value is not well understood by all the different organizations that could take advantage of it.

"NLR has created a resource where the pioneering for the economy of the future is happening," Mambretti says. "But it hasn't been as successful at getting this message out and keeping people informed about all the interesting things it's doing."

As a result of its low profile, NLR is currently using only about 10 percent of its network's capacity. But certainly, this resource can be put to greater use, Ricart says. While most politicians and business leaders now recognize broadband as an increasingly critical asset for the country's economic success, the United States is becoming a global also-ran when it comes to broadband capabilities.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, ranks the United States 18th in the average cost of bandwidth, and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation places the country 15th in its broadband assessment (see chart).

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, says he views broadband development as the country's most important infrastructure challenge, akin to building the railroad, electricity and highway systems during previous generations. "Broadband is the platform that will determine whether the country can compete in the 21st century," he says.

In-Hand Broadband

With these comments in mind, NLR, along with Internet2, and 25 state and regional research and education organizations, offered the services of their networks to the FCC as part of a comprehensive plan to help the federal government create an advanced high-speed broadband network for public institutions and other crucial community resources, such as schools, libraries, medical facilities, government agencies, technology parks, and research centers.

NLR would be a key asset in such an effort. Beyond its expansive network, NLR is now able to connect more than 30 state and regional public networks, reaching virtually every corner of the country with bandwidth 10 times faster and far more affordable than anything available commercially.

"Broadband is the platform that will determine whether the country can compete in the 21st century,"

— Julius Genachowski, chairman, U.S. Federal Communications Commission

But NLR isn't waiting for the federal government. Since its founding, the organization has viewed itself as the communications service provider for the public sector, offering advanced bandwidth for the greater good.

Recently, for example, NLR partnered with Internet2 to expand use of NLR's Cisco TelePresence exchange for facilitating collaborative research and education among scientists, doctors, engineers and students in the United States and other countries.

To boost the good NLR can do, Ricart wants to greatly increase the organization's ties with the academic and commercial research community. He says NLR is perfectly suited for facilitating advanced experimentation and then speeding those innovations to the public through commercial partnerships.

"If innovation happens in a lab and no one sees it, did it really happen?" Ricart says.

To further NLR's potential, Ricart is also looking to diversify NLR's funding and garner support from such public agencies as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. With more members and greater funding, Ricart says NLR can fully step into the role it was designed to fill as the country's public network.

Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.

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