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NIU offers high-speed network to Hoffman, Naperville
By Ashok Selvam | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 7/9/2008 12:04 AM | Updated: 7/9/2008 8:38 AM

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Northern Illinois University is offering communities like Hoffman Estates and Schaumburg what's touted as a rare opportunity.

It's to join NIUnet, a next-generation high-speed computer network that's touted as leaving DSL and cable modems in the digital dust.

"It's for a much cheaper cost than if we did it ourselves," Hoffman Estates Trustee Gary Pilafas said.

For the last three years, NIU has been working on a 175-mile fiber-optic ring that will connect its main campus in DeKalb to satellite locations in Hoffman Estates and Naperville.

NIU has asked these towns, along with Rockford and other partners, for permission to bury the needed cables beneath local roads, and for money and other support, for the project. In exchange, the partners can get access to the high-speed network.

NIU officials say this type of network is now available only at "elite research facilities." The improved services comes in part by increasing the number of Internet access points.

The network represents an unprecedented collaboration, said NIU Associate Vice President for Information Technology Wally Czerniak.

"NIU is pretty much the first to built this kind of project this way," he said.

The glass threads in fiber-optic cable allow quicker data transfers compared to traditional metal cables.

How fast is it? A two-hour long high-definition video clip would take eight hours to transfer over standard DSL, Czerniak said. The same download would take about 90 seconds over fiber optics.

The underground wires run from DeKalb to Naperville, north to Hoffman Estates, west to Rockford and back south to DeKalb. Hoffman Estates and Rockford should be connected by fall. NIU also benefits because the cost of connecting to the network is less than paying outside providers for Internet access.

While the general public won't be able to play video games or check Facebook page on NIUnet, municipalities, schools, hospitals and research facilities will have access. That's a benefit for doctors sending large CT scan or MRI images to other medical centers, for example.

Schaumburg and Elgin would also benefit from the Hoffman Estates connection, to be buried along the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway.

That's because fiber optics could eventually become an industry standard, and having it installed now at a reduced rate would be cheaper than making infrastructure improvements in the future.

One benefit for local municipalities getting into the network is that files can then be backed up on the NIU server in DeKalb. While backing up is not unusual, officials say having multiple backups in different locations provides additional peace of mind. Prospect Heights is still playing catch-up after files were lost in the 2006 city hall fire. The burned building was the only location where files were stored.

Carpentersville-based Community Unit School District 300 expects to be able to connect to the new network by fall. District Chief Technology Officer Eric Willard said the schools wants to make sure teachers are comfortable with the technology before offering it to students. He's excited about the potential.

"We're depending on the speed of radio wave right now," he said. "The speed of light is much faster."

NIU has set aside $1.5 million for the project, and has asked potential partners for money in exchange for access. Hoffman Estates' planned new fire station will likely be connected.

The village has approved spending the $127,900 requested by NIU on the project. NIU's portion is $171,000. That's for the first of three connections.

The city of Naperville has yet to pay any money toward the network, said Larry Gunderson, information technology team leader for Naperville. While NIU's Naperville campus was connected in 2007, the city has yet to tap into it.

But the city is considering its options, as Gunderson said it would provide less-costly, more stable Internet access. He said connecting would cost the city "not very much" but declined to provide an exact figure.

"It's just a great resource for us," he said. "We're looking at the potential it would have for the city."

NIUnet is a high-speed network that's driven by researchers and referred to as Internet2. The Web's growing popularity has led to increased use and slower connection speeds, which is a problem for researchers whose projects go beyond surfing the Web.

This wasn't a problem when the Internet was new about 25 years ago, when it was strictly for research purposes. This was before casual e-mail checks and video streaming by school kids wanting to watch the latest movie trailer were the norms.

Village workers like safety inspectors and police would have more reliable Internet access, said Hoffman Estates Village Manger James Norris. Educational opportunities via classes taught over the computer area also a big attraction, he said. Employees will be able work away from the office, which Norris calls "huge."

"It will dramatically increase the efficiency of village employees," he said.

Access to the network would also be attractive to private businesses, Czerniak said, and having a high-speed network could also help lure businesses into a community, making a town attractive for young job seekers. He said partners likes Hoffman Estates could lease access to the network to private businesses, which would put them in competition with companies like AT&T and Comcast as Internet Service Providers. Norris said the village isn't looking into that yet.