The U.S. notoriously lags other countries when it comes to Internet speed. One recent report from Web analyst Akamai Technologies puts us in 14th place, far behind front-runner South Korea and also trailing Hong Kong, Japan and Romania, among other countries. The sticking point over faster broadband has been: Who will pay for it? Telecommunications companies have been leery of investing in infrastructure unless they are certain of demand for extra speed. American consumers, for their part, have been content to direct much of their Internet use to e-mail and social networks, which operate perfectly well at normal broadband speeds, and they have not been willing to pay a premium for speedier service.

The exception lies at the seat of learning. Universities and research institutes are always looking for a quicker flow of bits. “We think our researchers will be left behind without gigabit speeds,” says Elise Kohn, a former policy adviser for the Federal Communications Commission. Kohn and Blair Levin, who helped to develop the FCC’s National Broadband Plan—a congressionally mandated scheme to ensure broadband access to all Americans—are leading a collection of 29 universities spread across the country in piloting a network of one-gigabit-per-second Internet connections. The group, the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project—more commonly referred to as Gig.U—includes Duke University, the University of Chicago, the University of Washington and Arizona State University.

The average U.S. Internet speed today is 5.3 megabits per second, so Gig.U’s Internet would be many times faster than those available today, allowing users to download the equivalent of two high-definition movies in less than one minute and to watch streaming video with no pixelation or other interruptions. By comparison, the average Internet speed in South Korea is 14.4 megabits per second, and the country has pledged to connect every home to the Internet at one gigabit per second by 2012.

The U.S. gigabit networks will vary from site to site, depending on the approach that different Internet service providers propose to meet the differing needs of Gig.U members. “All our members are focused on next-generation networks, although some will need more than a gigabit, and others will need less,” Kohn says. Gig.U’s request-for-information period runs through November to solicit ideas from the local service providers upgrading to faster networks. These ideas will ultimately be funded by Gig.U members, as well as any nonprofits and private-sector companies interested in the project. Gig.U intends 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.