Will High-Speed Internet Turn College Towns into Tech Start-Ups?

Some universities are hoping that offering super-high speed internet will create an attractive environment for startups.

Twenty-nine universities have teamed up to build ultra-high-speed computer networks in the communities surrounding them, in the hopes that the new technology will attract high-tech startups in fields like health care, energy and telecommunications to towns in Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri. We're not just talking regular wireless—these internet speeds would potentially be hundreds of times faster than the typical household's laptop, fast enough to download HD movies in less than a minute.

These universities are hoping to create a tech frontier, an environment for innovation that would eventually help the United States become more competitive internationally. Although we were doing well up until the 1990s, the United States is now ranked a pathetic 30th in terms of network bandwidth available to the population.

Even though it sounds like a noble cause, some technologists are wondering whether this is an idea that has no application in the real world. They point out that downloading high-resolution video is really the only major benefit to having these ultra-high-speed networks. Others say there's no way to know what form these new technologies will take, and therefore no way to plan for them.

But even if these initiatives don't pan out the way the universities hope, this push could have positive effects on the communities around them. It's no secret that town-gown relations can be either strained or uncomfortably co-dependent, and having this new technology for the entire area and not just sequestered on campus could ease those tensions. These one-gigabit networks wouldn't just be for researchers and professors, after all, but for the homes surrounding the university. And if it does end up attracting startups, like Case Western's pilot program did, it'd not only be good for the university and our global reputation—it could actually create jobs and new opportunities for regular people in these towns' local economies.

photo (cc) by Flickr user Lamenta3