Public-private venture proposes Internet links for underserved areas

October 6, 2009

A broad partnership of Madison-area education, health, government and nonprofit organizations, including the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is seeking more than $6 million in federal stimulus funding to expand access to computer networks for underserved communities and local agencies.

The public-private joint venture would create the Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network (MUFN), a fiber-optic broadband system that would augment existing network facilities and extend technology resources to participating agencies and community support programs. MUFN would improve the so-called “middle-mile” infrastructure in and around Madison by upgrading links between the main Internet backbone and “last-mile” connections that deliver Internet service to individual consumers. It would significantly improve access to Internet resources for at-risk populations, enhance network connectivity for public safety agencies and provide more cost-effective network service for area public schools and libraries. A companion project proposal for “last-mile” service, called the Madison Broadband Initiative, has been submitted by the city of Madison.

MUFN would serve the anchor institutions participating in the grant proposal, including three area hospitals, three local governments, three school districts, colleges, libraries and more than two dozen community support organizations. In addition, Xiocom, a company that owns and operates the MadCity Broadband network service in Madison, would collaborate with MUFN to deliver “last-mile” connections to local community organizations. Together, MUFN and Mad City Broadband will cover approximately 90 percent of all community anchor institutions, public safety entities and critical community organizations in the greater Madison area.

“MUFN would generate a synergy among the participating groups,” says Pat Christian of UW–Madison, who is coordinating the proposal effort. “The community organizations that belong to DaneNet, for example, are often clustered in the same buildings. MUFN can deliver fiber connections to those buildings and aggregate network service to the tenants. Together, they can do things that any one organization could not afford on its own.”

MUFN would enable participating groups to address their own technology needs and share their resources with others. Public safety agencies and distance education providers, for example, could use MUFN to tap video facilities. Ambulances could transmit patient vital signs to emergency rooms before they arrive. Clinics and hospitals could more easily access electronic health records. Students at Madison Area Technical College and UW–Madison could share resources.

MUFN is a joint venture of UW Health; Meriter Hospital; the cities of Madison and Middleton; the Madison, Monona Grove and Middleton-Cross Plains school districts; Dane County; the South Central Library System; UW–Madison; Madison Area Technical College; the State Lab of Hygiene; UW-Extension’s Geological and Natural History Survey; DaneNet (which represents almost 30 community groups); and Xiocom, which operates the MadCity Broadband network service.

MUFN is seeking stimulus funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help overcome existing public-sector budget constraints and attract private-sector investment. The act appropriated $7.2 billion to expand broadband network access to unserved and underserved communities, increase jobs, spur investments in technology and infrastructure, and provide other long-term economic benefits. The establishment of MUFN would create or save more than 500 jobs, according to project leaders.