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Rich in Fiber 

Tucson looks at a Cleveland model for connecting governments, educational organizations and nonprofits

Could a concept from America's Rust Belt be used to technologically improve Sun Belt Tucson? Local advocates hope so, and look for action on the idea in 2007.

To increase interconnections between public and nonprofit organizations, OneCleveland was created on the banks of Lake Erie. It is a nonprofit group that has a board of directors and a small staff to oversee its operation.

OneCleveland has acquired fiber-optic lines unused by commercial companies. They use this network to provide broadband high-speed technology access to their paying subscribers. In return, these subscribers--educational, government, health care, arts and other nonprofit groups--receive improved connectivity, along with substantial savings on their Internet bills.

"Ultra broadband networks," the OneCleveland Web site states, "move data at gigabit speeds, or 1 billion bits per second. This is 1,300 times faster than DSL."

Lev Gonick, vice president of information services at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, came up with the idea, and lists both connectivity and the new technological applications it allows as the system's chief advantages.

As an example, Gonick says the Cleveland Clinic is now connected directly to school districts, so health-care courses taught by doctors are broadcast to classes, and biology students can watch open-heart surgery as it takes place.

"You can do the same with libraries, museums or senior centers," says Gonick, who is chairman of OneCleveland's board.

While there are many benefits of increasing connectivity between groups, Gonick pays special attention to the digital technology implications for education.

"If these new dynamic media are, in fact, emerging to challenge the primacy of plain text in our daily communications," Gonick has written, "we are witnessing the first true communications revolution in more than 5,000 years."

Case Western put up much of the initial capital to acquire and install the OneCleveland network. Gonick says of similar investments in other cities: "It will be a cost of doing business in 21st-century communities."

Members of the city of Tucson's Technology Policy Advisory Committee have been looking at the possibility of implementing the concept locally, and are excited about the prospects.

Educator John Crouch calls it a "marvelous idea," while Joe Chitwood, who works for KUAT Channel 6, observes: "It drives down prices for Internet services while driving up productivity."

Michele Norin from the UA Center for Computing and Information Technology, says: "I'm most interested in its ideas for partnerships with other organizations on the network."

Ann Strine, the director of the city's Information Technology Department, supports the concept. However, she does point out a difference between Cleveland and Tucson: "No one has stepped up to be the instigator," like Case Western, she says, adding, "Tucson doesn't have much unused fiber."

Norin mentions more differences between the two cities: Cleveland did not have a lot of technological infrastructure, while Tucson does: "We have the opportunity to share (fiber lines) rather than build new ones."

Based on those differences, Strine observes: "Our circumstances do not match Cleveland's, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't look at it."

To do that, a local delegation traveled to Ohio earlier this year, and Norin's office paid $25,000 for the paperwork details of the OneCleveland organization. That information is now being reviewed.

Chitwood says the city committee is trying to determine what the system's startup costs would be, and is also trying to figure out how to address other financing issues, along with the lack of existing unused fiber. "We need to get the major players to come together to say this is going to happen ... and find out if there's enough interest in town. Will all the players get together to play?" he asks.

The role of these key players--the university, city and county governments, Pima Community College and others--raises questions for Crouch, including: Would smaller players in such a system have any power? "My fear is those who control (the network) will not have nonaligned members on the board of directors. The big players will be involved, but I hope for some nonaligned people, also."

Chitwood acknowledges that Crouch's concern needs to be resolved, yet would like to see steps taken next year to locally implement the OneCleveland concept.

Strine takes a more cautious approach. "We're sort of at the talking stage," she says. "The city has a quite extensive fiber network connecting its facilities, and so does Pima County, and the two are connected."

Strine indicates this system also provides service to the university and most Pima Community College campuses, and is proximate to 20 high schools. However, Strine stresses the system is only used to pass information between the facilities, not to hook them into the Internet.

"In some ways, we have education and government unofficially connected already," Strine says. "The other piece is the nonprofits, but ours are not as large as Cleveland's."

Norin wants to have something happen soon, and believes that if the city doesn't follow the Ohio model, other options should be pursued.

"We're at the stage of identifying what needs to be connected," she says, "and finding out where the gaps are. I'd like to see some things rolling next year."

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