Pitt Helps Lead Efforts to Connect Rural Pennsylvania to the World

Issue Date: 
January 31, 2011

“Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about a faster Internet and fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.”

—President Barack Obama, Jan. 25, 2011, State of the Union speech.

The University of Pittsburgh is doing its part to help connect rural Pennsylvanians to the world via a high-speed broadband network being planned by the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER). The initiative—of which Pitt is both a founding and board of trustees member—recently announced that it awarded $118.5 million in contracts to begin construction later this year on the high-speed broadband network that will greatly expand educational opportunities and health care services throughout the Commonwealth.

KINBER’s project, the Pennsylvania Research and Education Network (PennREN), will span more than 1,600 miles through at least 39 counties, many of which have only limited access to broadband services.

“We’re proud to be among the founding members of KINBER, and the awarding of the contracts to begin construction on the network this year is an exciting milestone,” said Jinx Walton, director of Pitt’s Computing Services and Systems Development and Pitt’s representative on the KINBER board of directors. “The University is committed to the development of this high-speed network, and, to that end, we are contributing the efforts of one of our technology staff members as director of operations for the project.”

KINBER is a consortium of more than a dozen higher education institutions, research and health care organizations, and economic development entities that joined forces nearly 18 months ago. The group has received about $100 million in federal funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for the PennREN project. The grant was among the largest awarded under the federal stimulus program designed to spur greater broadband access to underserved portions of the country.

“We are very excited about what this network will mean to Pennsylvania,” said KINBER Executive Director Jeff Reel. “The Commonwealth is one of only a handful of states without a high-speed optical network serving its higher education and health care institutions.

“Once completed, PennREN not only will form interconnections among the vast majority of our institutions of higher learning, but also will provide new opportunities to partner with K-12 schools, increase access to national and federal research centers, and enhance the availability of telemedicine and the use of electronic medical records. The quality-of-life and economic development implications of this network cannot be overstated,” Reel added.

Contracts for the design and implementation of the PennREN project were awarded to Houston-based Quanta Services, Inc., and two of its subsidiaries, Sunesys and Blair Park Services, both based in Warrington, Pa. Local and regional workers employed by Sunesys and Blair Park Services will install the fiber optic network. Quanta also will provide $24 million in matching funds to supplement the federal award.

Construction of the network is set to begin later this year, with the first segments to be completed in early 2012. The main network segments will be completed in early 2013, with additional network spurs to be completed by the end of 2013. A diagram of the PennREN network route map is available at www.kinber.org.

The KINBER board includes representatives from, in addition to Pitt, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities; Bucknell, Carnegie Mellon, Drexel, and Lehigh universities; Geisinger Health System; the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania; the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges; the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education; Pennsylvania State University; Public Media Organizations of Pennsylvania; and the University of Pennsylvania.