'Digital town squares' boost internet speeds in mid-sized communities

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Three mid-sized and rural communities are using the internet at faster speeds than ever before, according to smart city nonprofit U.S. Ignite and the National Science Foundation, who shared success stories from the U.S. Ignite’s Smart Gigabit Communities initiative on Tuesday.

Eugene, Oregon; Urbana-Champaign, Illinois; and regions of rural Utah are all a part of the U.S. Ignite’s Smart Gigabit Communities initiative, which launched in 2017 to improve broadband infrastructure and reliability in rural areas across the country via a partnership with the National Science Foundation. The NSF subsidizes the installation and equipment costs for each community. The communities are using facilities that enable network switching between regional internet service providers, who pay to connect their customers to fiber-optic cables.

The infrastructure, which U.S. Ignite calls a “digital town square,” or DTS, ultimately results in faster internet and lower latency for residents and businesses, according to Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce managing director Matt Sayre.

“What we’ve learned is how to fight above our weight class,” Sayre said of his city’s participation in the program.

The network upgrade in Eugene is carrier-neutral, Sayre told StateScoop, which means that residents don’t have to pay extra to receive the benefits of faster internet when traffic is exchanged at the DTS. Essentially, he said, the technology connects Eugene’s “islands” of scattered businesses and homes that already have gigabit speed internet to keep internet traffic and data local, rather than having to traverse connections to far-away ISP facilities in Portland or San Francisco.

“Holistically, it’s taught us the benefit of aggregating demand in a central location, and doing that in sort of a carrier-neutral interconnect facility,” Sayre said. “That has paid significant dividends in allowing us to leverage our collective buying power here.”

Other communities, like Urbana-Champaign, have seen similar improvements in cost and reliability. Internet providers in the region, which already has two different DTSs, can offer broadband at 10 gigabytes per second without bottlenecks in network traffic that afflicted the region before installing the DTSs. Utah’s DTS, meanwhile, allows regional ISPs to access network applications, like CloudFlare’s load-balancing service, without hosting them on their own network and sacrificing speed for storage, according to U.S. Ignite.

The digital town square also ensures that last-mile connections will deliver internet at full speed, according to Mari Silbey, U.S. Ignite’s communications director, which has spurred regional ISPs to increase their investment into Eugene’s infrastructure. Sayre said the city can offer $59 gigabit internet, which he credited with drawing more than 25 tech companies to Eugene within the last two years.

The project has also benefited neighboring communities, like Springfield, Oregon, which recently won a grant from U.S. Ignite and NSF to install another DTS across town from Eugene’s existing infrastructure.

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Eugene, Illinois, Oregon, Urbana-Champaign, Utah
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