Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Glass Belt to Transform the Rust Belt

Beneath the cornfields of Northern Illinois lies a mysterious triangle, with powers that make the infamous Bermuda Triangle pale in comparison. This triangle doesn't have the destructive nature of swallowing up ships and planes. Instead, it swallows up poverty, unemployment and economic decay. It transforms the rust of the well named "rust belt," the debris of the deceased industrial era, into the laser light of millions of Gigabytes for the information society.

This new-era belt is made of hair-like strands of glass fiber buried underground adjacent to three Interstate highways. The triangle formed by I-88, I-90 and I-39 interconnects the cities of DeKalb, Chicago and Rockford, Illinois. While the physical lifeblood of commercial traffic travels the Interstate highway, the informational lifeblood of the new economy travels the fiber optic highway. And you thought "information superhighway" was just a metaphor. In this case, the physical and virtual transportation systems complete each other.

The fiber optic triangle, more formally known as NIUNet, is the brainchild of Northern Illinois University. The University originally wanted high speed data connections between its main campus in DeKalb Illinois and satellite campuses in Naperville, Hoffman Estates and Rockford. They also wanted to hook up with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia and, via the Chicago based I-WIRE network, to the Argonne National Laboratory. Once the project started rolling as an educational network, cities along the path pitched-in via the Illinois Municipal Broadband Communications Association (IMBCA) so that the network could also serve hospitals, businesses and other organizations.

Just like the Interstate highway system breathed growth and prosperity into the cities connected by access ramps, the NIUNet may well breathe new life into the cities with fiber optic access networks. Rockford, IL has seen many transformations in its economic base. From watch making, to sock knitting, to furniture manufacturing to machine tools to fasteners, it has been a world leader in each. Each time, the boom periods came to an end as industries transformed and moved on, usually overseas. The next booms may come in micro-machining innovation, major medical centers, sports complexes or spinoffs of the research from NIU or the Chicago area research laboratories. For Rockford, the next rise from stagnation to prominence will certainly require the fastest data channels available. It's a good time to be interconnecting with businesses and organizations that can fuel the next economic boom.

Rochelle, Illinois is a smaller city with a strategic location at the junction of I-88 going East-West and I-39 going North-South. That, plus good access to rail facilities has made Rochelle a growth area for logistics companies. Efficient distribution networks are essential to the success of regional and national retail chains and restaurants. But so is high speed digital communications for automated ordering, accounting data updates to headquarters, and customer service call centers. With the fiber optic backbone in place, Rochelle has both the physical and informational connections to prosper as a logistics hub.

Two other key cities are among those originally in the IMBCA. Batavia, IL is home to the Fermilab, a high power particle accelerator for physics research. It's named for Enrico Fermi, pioneer in the development of atomic energy. Naperville, Illinois is a prosperous suburb of Chicago located in the Illinois Technology and Research Corridor. It is home to several telecommunications companies and other corporate headquarters. Naperville can serve as the gateway to Chicago business and industry for the other cities.

With the recent completion of the final leg of the I-39 fiber route, the fiber optic triangle is now in position to begin working its magic. Other triangles or rings in other areas will do the same until the "Net", as we've come to call it, becomes a tightly woven net of glass fibers more pervasive than the network of roads that powered the United States to prosperity in the 20th century. That's what it's going to take for the 21st century.

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