Northern Illinois University received word today of the largest grant in university history – $68.5 million to develop a broadband network that will spread across nine counties in northwest Illinois.
That amount includes $46.1 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, funded by money set aside last year as part of by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; a $14 million grant from the State of Illinois; and an additional $8.4 million from various partner agencies and business involved in the project.
“This is a landmark day for NIU,” President John Peters said. “Not only because of the magnitude of this grant, but also for what it says about NIU and our commitment and capacity to serve the emerging needs of our region.”
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The network will extend to Whiteside, Stephenson, Ogle, Lee, Jo Daviess, Carroll, Winnebago, Boone and LaSalle counties. It will provide affordable high-speed broadband connections to schools, healthcare providers, libraries, higher education, emergency services, local governments and other anchor institutions. A substantial portion of the network will be made available to private industry to help attract and retain business. It also will create opportunities to dramatically expand and improve residential broadband and cable television services. It should be substantially complete in about two years.
“With this funding, NIU will be able to bring broadband service to underserved areas, creating hundreds of jobs and spurring economic development in our area,” said Congressman Bill Foster (14th District). “While the short‑term impact will be significant, there is no doubt that this will generate enormous benefits for our region in the long‑term. Throughout the country, high quality broadband infrastructure has been the catalyst for industrial growth.”
NIU’s role in creating the network is a perfect example of how universities engage with their service regions today, Peters said.
“This is a 21st century twist on the old land grant model,” Peters said. “At the turn of the 20th century those universities worked with farmers to increase yields and cut costs. Today, we are working with the broader community to improve the quality of life by stimulating economic development and addressing a range of social issues from improving health care to enhancing education.”
The university first got involved in the project, officially known as the Illinois Broadband Opportunity Partnership Northwest Region, at the request of the governor’s office in early 2010. That request was based upon NIU’s success in projects such as NIUNet, the Illinois Rural Health Network and the DeKalb Advancement of Technology Authority.
Each of those projects was built upon a public-private partnership model that minimized costs while maximizing benefits. Pioneered with the launch of NIUNet in 2003, that model is in fact at the heart of all of the federal funding being released Broadband USA program, said Wally Czerniak, NIU associate vice president for Information Technology Services who helped launch NIUNet and the subsequent projects.
Soon after NIU signed on to the IBOP project, the partner agencies — Blackhawk Hills RC&D, LaSalle County Broadband Initiative and the City of Rockford — asked the university to serve as the lead agency and take on the massive and painstaking task of compiling and writing the grant.
Instrumental in that process were:
- John Lewis, associate vice president for Administration and Outreach, who served as PI on the project and assisted in development of the financial model for the project and economic impact data.
- Herb Kuryliw, chief network architect for information technology services, who was co-PI on the grant. He helped design the network and helped establish the partnerships at the heart of the project.
- Lisa Kay Bergeron, Director of Health and Technology Initiatives, who helped with the financial analysis and analysis of economic data.
- Roger Swenson, director of technology for the NIU Broadband Development Group, who assisted in the design of the network.
- Michael Spires, of the Office of Sponsored Projects, who oversaw all of the details of compiling and filing the grant.
“Those individuals, and dozens of others who contributed to this project, were instrumental in making this grant a reality,” Peters said. “Their efforts will have far reaching effects across our region and right here on campus, where this grant should stimulate new and exciting developments.”
Among those on campus who could benefit are:
- Faculty whose research and teaching interests focus on managerial improvements in school, business or health care settings, who will be able to monitor the improvements increased communication speeds can bring.
- Computer scientists interested in network security, law professors interested in privacy issues, economists tracking health care costs and efficiencies should all find problems, policies and practices worthy of further attention.
- Faculty responsible for professional programs in health care, education, public safety, public health and public administration will have new and better avenues for the delivery of continuing professional education, consultative services and, in some cases, direct care.
- Faculty interested in providing distance-learning opportunities – for students at NIU or to students at campuses elsewhere can utilize the network. The NIU School of Music has already been utilizing high-speed networks to provide access to world-class music and instruction for its students.
“This grant cements NIU’s reputation as a leader in expanding broadband technology to under-served areas of the state,” Peters said. “This is an emerging area of excellence for the university, and one we hope to build on to better serve the needs of our region in the years ahead.”