In the not-too-distant future broadband speeds will be measured in gigabits per second rather than megabits per second, the former being 1,000 times faster than the latter. Such blazing fast data transmission will vastly improve the quality of streaming high-definition video, playing online video games, participating in video conferences and using voice over IP, all of which struggle with latency at today's average data transfer rates, which range from less than one megabit per second (Mbps) to 10 Mbps (pdf). The sticking point over gigabit-per-second broadband: who will pay for it?

Telecommunications companies, still stinging from the financial beating they took a decade ago after hastily building up capacity for Internet companies that soon went out of business, have been leery ever since of investing in infrastructure unless they are certain there is a demand for it. Most customers, many of them still exploring the wonders of YouTube and for the most part content to simply use e-mail and social networks, are not demanding, nor are they willing to pay a premium for, service that moves information at 1 billion bits per second.

The exception lies at the seat of learning—universities and research institutes that can find a way to use any extra bit of speed that their ISPs can provide. With the federal government in no position at the moment to invest heavily in the National Broadband Plan introduced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year, more than 30 universities and counting have taken the matter into their own hands, forming the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, more commonly referred to as Gig.U. Members include schools across the country—from the University of Alaska down to the University of Florida at Gainesville.

Gig.U's goal is to accelerate the deployment of next-generation networks in the U.S. by encouraging researchers—students and professors alike—to develop new applications and services that can make use of ultrafast data transfer rates. Imagine downloading two HD movies in less than a minute or expanding the use of video conferencing and Webcasting without worrying about latency issues that today pixilate images and freeze streaming video.

The most interesting uses are yet to come, according to Gig.U organizers, who want to extend gigabit-speed networks beyond campuses and into the surrounding college communities where students and professors live. College communities make sense as test beds for gigabit networks because they include highly concentrated population of heavy Internet users as well as institutions already connected to Internet2, National LambdaRail (NLR) and other high-speed Internet backbones, says Gig.U Program Director Elise Kohn, a former policy advisor in the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau. "If you look at a lot of our international competitors in the research community, we think our researchers will be left behind without gigabit speeds," she says.

The gigabit networks will vary from site to site, depending on the approach that different ISPs propose to meet the differing needs of Gig.U members. "All of our members are focused on next-generation networks, although some will need more than a gigabit while others will need less," Kohn says. Gig.U is holding a request for information (RFI) from September to November to solicit ideas from the local service providers for building out new networks, which would ultimately be funded by Gig.U members as well as any non-profits and private-sector companies interested in the project.

Although there is no formal connection between Google and Gig.U, Kohn says she would welcome Google's involvement with the project, which is being led by Blair Levin, who headed development of the National Broadband Plan and has stressed the importance of test beds for high-speed connectivity.

In fact, Gig.U was inspired in part by the Google Community Fiber Initiative, a project the company announced in February 2010 to set up ultra–high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations throughout the U.S., says Lev Gonick, chief information officer at Gig.U member Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Case Western has already created a network in line with Gig.U's goals called the Case Connection Zone, which connects more than 100 residences near the university via a gigabit fiber network.

Google demonstrated that the demand is out there, Kohn says, adding, "Look at how the communities worked to get Google to choose them as part of their program." Within one month of announcing its Community Fiber Initiative, the company had received more then 1,100 responses from communities throughout the U.S. requesting to become test sites for Google's new network. Google plans to announce the test site or sites by the end of the year. Many of these submissions included homemade videos pleading their case. Sarasota, Fla., Mayor Dick Clapp even donned scuba gear and climbed into a shark tank to show his commitment (video). Less clear is what these different communities plan to do with a gigabit network if they are chosen as a test site.

This is not the case at universities, many of which now tout their networks to attract professors and students working on ambitious research projects. Gig.U officials are hoping that at least some of these projects will spur interest in gigabit networks and seed demand for higher bandwidth nationwide.