Supporters of a high-speed broadband network that connects researchers in a dozen northern states say the system is in good shape despite university budget cutbacks, thanks in part to a new federal initiative.
The Northern Tier Network was established in 2003 to help improve Internet capability in states that lagged behind the rest of the country. It includes universities from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and Alaska.
Bonnie Neas, North Dakota State University's vice president for information technology and the state representative to the network, told North Dakota lawmakers Tuesday that research dollars created through the system have boosted many universities that are hurting for money.
"It's really pushing the science, math and technology agenda for the country," Neas said.
The system also stands to benefit from a possible $97 million federal grant to two nonprofit Internet networks looking to link regional systems. The proposal by Internet2 and National LambdaRail would give Northern Tier 10 times its current Internet capability and reduce costs by 50 percent, Neas said.
North Dakota will spend $735,000 operating the system this year.
The network was created after officials in several northern states realized they could only afford high-speed service if they banded together. North Dakota has received about $3.25 million in federal funds and $2.73 million in state money for the network, which is used at NDSU, the University of North Dakota and the state's Information Technology Department.
"I can remember going to a carrier in about 1997 and asking for broadband access between UND and NDSU," Neas said in an interview. "We were told we couldn't make a business case to do that."
Researchers aren't the only people using the network. A demonstration Tuesday showed lawmakers how high school students can view specimens under a $300,000 electron microscope in real time.
"It used to be so slow to refresh and focus; the experience was not that great," said Scott Payne, assistant director of the NDSU Electron Microscopy Center. "If pictures are worth a thousand words, real time is priceless."
Roberta Rystedt, a high school teacher in Powers Lake, said the network enables a small school with a small budget to challenge its students for free. The northwestern North Dakota town has about 100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
"If you don't incorporate the most current technology into your classrooms, they are easily bored," Rystedt said. "We have failed them, in essence."
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