Public-private venture wins grant to extend Internet links to underserved areas

March 3, 2010

A broad partnership of Madison-area education, health, government and nonprofit organizations, including the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has been awarded $5.1 million in federal stimulus funding to expand access to computer networks for underserved communities and local agencies.

The public-private joint venture will create the Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network (MUFN), a fiber-optic broadband system that will augment existing network facilities and extend technology resources to participating agencies and community support programs. MUFN will construct 57.05 miles of new high-count, fiber-optic cable and 35.25 miles of new conduit to improve the so-called “middle-mile” infrastructure in and around Madison.

It will 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.

MUFN will serve three area hospitals and numerous clinics; three local governments; three school districts; colleges; libraries; and more than two dozen community support organizations. In addition to community organizations, approximately 50,000 homes and 5,000 businesses may be able to take advantage of this infrastructure.

The MUFN project will create 72 jobs, according to project leaders, and use local businesses and American-made materials to stimulate the economy in the Dane County region and the U.S. Improved broadband access will aid at least four business incubators and other research facilities, possibly generating more “spin-off” jobs.

Xiocom, a company that owns and operates the Mad City Broadband network service in Madison, will collaborate with MUFN to deliver “last-mile” connections to local community organizations.

MUFN will enable participating groups to address their own technology needs and share their resources with others. Public safety agencies and distance education providers, for example, will be able to 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 College and UW–Madison will be able to easily share resources.

“Expanding Internet access is the modern equivalent of building railroads and interstates of our time,” says Patrick Christian of UW–Madison, who will coordinate the project. “MUFN will provide affordable, long-term broadband access in the greater Madison metropolitan area through a unique public/private partnership to help spur economic development.”

Christian stressed the long-term benefits of the MUFN project, estimating that the fiber-optic cable installed by the project will be in service for about 25 years and the conduit for 40 or more years.

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 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 Mad City Broadband network service.

The stimulus funding is provided 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.