Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania


April 29, 2014

A decade ago, Franklin & Marshall College needed 20 megabits per second bandwidth to power all its campus Internet use. This year, it needed 1,000 Mbps. That's 50 times as much as in 2004. By comparison, a typical DSL connection uses 1 to 2 Mbps and a typical home connection with Comcast uses 10 to 20 Mbps. "(Broadband) is so mission critical," said Alan Sutter, F&M's director of networks and systems. Whether it's students and faculty accessing databases for research or just young people streaming Netflix in the dorms, high-speed connections have become the standard for daily life on campus. And that's not just at F&M. Internet use at K-12 schools, libraries, government offices and other institutions has grown exponentially in recent decades. With that explosion comes rising costs. To deal with the expenses, some local organizations are looking to a nonprofit broadband network. That network is called PennREN — Pennsylvania Research and Education Network — and F&M was the first institution in Lancaster County to connect to it.

PennREN is a project of KINBER — the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research — a nonprofit membership organization of education, research, health care and other institutions. KINBER received a $99.6 million federal stimulus grant in 2010 to build a 1,600-mile high speed fiber optic network across the state. The money was matched by more than $29 million in cash and in-kind contributions from KINBER, contractors and members, according to KINBER communications director Leslie Amoros. Construction of PennREN was completed in February 2013. KINBER executive director Wendy Huntoon said the nonprofit uses half of PennREN's 48 strands of fiber for its member organizations and leases the other 24 strands to Synesis, which sells services commercially. The PennREN network runs directly through Lancaster County, entering from the east along Route 30, going through the city and Millersville, and then north along the Susquehanna River to Columbia, where it branches westward into York and northward to Hershey and Harrisburg. Its proximity made connecting to PennREN a possibility for F&M, but the pricing made it really attractive, according to Sutter.

Accessing the Internet through PennREN is cheaper for members because KINBER negotiates with commercial providers at bulk prices. F&M pays $3 per Mb for Internet use on KINBER. Sutter said that's about half the cost of a commercial provider. KINBER members also pay an annual fee ranging from $10,000 to $30,000, Amoros said. After installing fiber and network electronics, F&M began using PennREN in December. F&M now purchases half of its broadband from KINBER and half from Frontier Communications. Sutter said F&M's infrastructure and experience will make it easier for other local institutions — like the public library, city government or public schools — to connect. Representatives from some local organizations considering connecting to PennREN were part of a panel discussion at a KINBER conference last week. They spoke in Harrisburg about their need for greater broadband use. Herbert Landau, executive director of the Lancaster Public Library, described lines of up to 50 people waiting for the library on Duke Street to open. “When the doors open, they come charging in … to get a computer workstation before someone else gets to it,” he said. Brian Barnhart, Intermediate Unit 13's executive director, said the IU's broadband use has increased 20-fold in seven years, going from 150 Mbps in 2007 to 3 gigabits per second starting in July. (One Gb is about 1,000 Mb.) IU13 provides Internet connections to 20 school districts and four private schools in Lancaster and Lebanon counties.

Other bodies represented on the panel were Pennsylvania College of Art & Design and Lancaster City. All four groups are exploring the technical steps and pricing for getting connected to PennREN. Besides cheaper broadband, joining the network would give those groups unprecedented sharing abilities with one another and other institutions in the state. To share research data or hold a video conference with Bucknell University, for instance, F&M faculty or students can connect directly via PennREN, rather than on a commercial provider's network. That makes for a faster connection and eliminates the $3 per Mb cost. "That's where the promise comes in," said Sutter. "(Before) it would take a day to get the data from F&M to Bucknell, and now we can get it there in 30 minutes. ... It opens up a lot of possibilities." KINBER wants to help its members explore those collaboration possibilities — not just between colleges but also among organizations from different fields, like hospitals and K-12 schools. "If you're not paying on a per Mb basis, people start to think broader," said Huntoon.